Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Theatre review: Toast

The second Richard Bean play I've seen this year, and the second to make reference to the Pitcairn islands - and we haven't even got to the one actually called Pitcairn. Instead this is a revival of his first play, which takes inspiration from Bean's job in a bread factory in his year out before university. Toast is set some time in the 1970s in the break room of a Hull bread factory; a time when the trade unions were at their most powerful, but although there's recently been a strike for higher pay, it was a complete failure. This may be because the union rep, Colin (Will Barton) is ineffectual, but it could just as well be because strike action would be a hard ask for people who barely ever seem to leave the ovens. Working anything up to 80-hour weeks, some, like Peter (Matt Sutton) have families to support, but for the likes of Cecil (Simon Greenall) and Nellie (Matthew Kelly) the job seems to be a genuine part of them.

The action takes place over a Sunday night, a shift none of them like working at the best of times, but made worse by a problem at a neighbouring factory, meaning they have to take on extra work.

Another wild card is Lance (John Wark,) a rather sinister mature student who's been sent for his first shift, but who may not be quite who he claims. These factors ramp up the tension between the co-workers, already there because the threat of closure hangs over their factory, and some of them are competing for jobs elsewhere. The characters are nicely-drawn and the cast invest them with believable personalities - Greenall is a bundle of nervous energy as Cecil's sexual frustrations at home lead him to take on an exaggerated comic character at work, digging at Dezzie (Finlay Robertson) for details of his own sex life, and grabbing at Peter's balls any time he's not paying attention.

Kelly's lumbering, monosyllabic Nellie convinces as the stalwart of the factory, whose co-workers seem to have conflicting feelings about - sometimes resenting him and his slow-wittedness, others trying to look out for him, knowing that he's so invested in his job he's unlikely to live long after he loses it.

James Turner's set evokes a grubby, smoke-filled room where you wouldn't want to work, nor would you really want your food to be prepared anywhere near it, but Eleanor Rhode's production lacks something in energy that makes it hard to really engage with the piece. Bean, who would later find a niche in darkly spiky, fast-paced comedy, hasn't in this early piece quite got the tone right between the comedy and the drama, and as a result Toast has moments that stand out but isn't an entirely satisfactory or memorable evening all things told.

Toast by Richard Bean is booking until the 21st of September at Park Theatre 200.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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