Richard Bean
Snapdragon Productions
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Matthew Kelly as Nellie Credit: Oliver King
Simon Greenall as Cecil and Mathew Kelly as Nellie Credit: Oliver King

Richard Bean graduated from Loughborough University with a BSc (hons) degree in Social Psychology and worked as an occupational psychologist advising NGOs (non-governmental organisations), at the same time building up a side career as a stand-up comic. It appears, though, that it is the year and a half he spent working in a bread factory in Hull when he was eighteen which has influenced his life and plays more than anything else.

Toast, his first professional play, which premièred at the Royal Court in 1999, is set in the canteen of such a factory, but his experiences there, and the stories he heard, have also influenced much, if not all, of his later work too.

Here we are in the mid-seventies when unions were all-powerful and workers had to abide by their rules which stated that if six men were working on a 12-hour shift there had to be a seventh, known as the Spare Wank, to cover their breaks.

That particular character must have been working overtime here as their breaks (known as ‘smokes’) appear to be frequent, extended and give plenty of time for conversation, exploration of characters and the odd card game. The one brought in to cover is Lance (John Wark), a rather strange mature student studying social and economic history, professing knowledge of antiques, but also with suicidal tendencies.

The unions might have been powerful, but Hull at this time had lost all its heavy industry and the fishing quotas meant that was also a losing battle. The fear of redundancy is in the air and this is present in the men as we gradually get to know them and their lives with the conversation and banter.

Mostly it’s about sex—who’s getting it, who’s not, who’s shagging the girl on ‘custard’, how the newlywed is coping etc. (if it was women it would be called gossip!). In between the chat, the card playing and the smoking, they tend to ‘goose’ each other, scratch at their private parts or adjust their underwear—people do tend to get a bit silly on a night shift.

The saddest character is Matthew Kelly’s Nellie; ground down by years of mindless toil and with a dominating wife, he seems to have given up on life. Maybe the sight of him vacantly, and at great length, consuming a piece of processed cheese was funny or poignant but if so it passed me by.

Perhaps I am missing the point, but to be perfectly honest in spite of the odd amusing comment, or the insight into a little of their outside lives I found the whole of the first act rather boring. Even the dire warning “you’re going to die Walter, here tonight” which concluded the act was not enough of an incentive to keep all of the audience in situ and several people left the play during the interval.

Things do liven up in the second act though with the very serious problem of a malfunctioning oven and the prospect of horrific burns for whoever tried to fix it. The true characters of these men now come through and, ending on a high note, Simon Greenall’s Cecil finds that his wife truly loves him.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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