The spectre of oblivion hangs over Toast, Richard Bean’s 1999 slice of blue-collar life now playing in 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off Broadway. There’s the oblivion of unemployment, threatened by the imminent closure of a London bread plant; the oblivion of death, in the fiery inferno of that plant’s malfunctioning oven; and the oblivion of single-minded devotion, in this case to wage labour that renders monosyllabic husks of its oldest workers, living from one smoke break to the next. Each of Toast’s seven-man ensemble, directed with poise by Eleanor Rhode, must face this spectre, though some face it offstage and others don’t seem to register it at all. Who can blame them? When you have to bake three thousand loaves of bread in twelve hours just to get home to your wife, there’s no time to waste with existential hokum.
But oh, how I wish Toast had wasted a little more time with the existential hokum. The play, which clocks in at a cumbersome two hours, lives largely in the boisterous antics of stir-crazy men. The setting is the flour-coated break room of the crumbling bread plant; its owner, the unseen and conspicuously-named Mr. Beckett, has invested in newer plants and is waiting for this one to fail. Throughout the course of a 12-hour Sunday shift, its seven employees filter in and out of the canteen as their schedules allow, grabbing each other’s balls and comparing sex lives. The conflict is addressed mostly in offhand complaints: a big order has come in, one that will require the team to stay later than expected. Things heighten in the second act, when the oven breaks down and petty power squabbles emerge. Then there’s the oddball new guy, Lance, who seems to have the inside scoop on his colleagues’ mortality.
Lance, played with frightening verve by John Lark, brings a refreshing change of pace to an otherwise standard workplace farce. Late in the first act he finds himself alone with Walter (Matthew Kelly), the shell-shocked bread mixer who’s given 45 years to the plant. Lance tells Walter in no uncertain terms that he will die tonight, quickly but painlessly. Walter, well, doesn’t know how to respond. Lark and Kelly make an entertaining pair: the former, articulate to the point of madness; the latter, near-robotic in his inability to process anything beyond his life’s narrow scope. The scene is our first indication that something deeper might be going on here, a promise mostly undermined by the procedural second act.
Toast is a love letter to work—the bonds formed over years of toil, the purpose it gives otherwise aimless lives. Blakey (Steve Nicolson), the plant’s foreman, early on declares the bakehouse his church; Cecil (Simon Greenall) says in a touching speech that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if the plant shut down. When the men ultimately devise and execute a scheme to unjam the jammed oven, the result is a riotous scene that successfully dramatizes offstage action—thanks in no small part to Max Pappenheim’s echoey sound design and Mike Robertson’s slowly vanishing lights. And yet the stakes here never surpass that scene, an hour earlier, when Lance gave Walter a death sentence. Though we do gain some deeper insight into Lance (no spoilers), it doesn’t quite distinguish him from any of his colleagues; Toast’s ultimate takeaway remains that these men love to work.
There is also a distressing masculinity to the play. These characters, all white men, do have women in their lives, but they are mentioned mostly for their capacity to provide sexual release. Cecil relentlessly questions the others about whether they’re getting any; the perpetually late Dezzie (Kieran Knowles) spends most of his stage time plotting to pop home for a quickie. On one level, this adds nuance to the play’s romanticised notions of labour: when work is home, what does home become? Do we work for it’s own sake, or for the life work provides? Unfortunately, Toast’s women factor so negligibly—and so reductively—into the action that these questions, forgive me, don’t have nearly enough yeast to rise.
Toast is on until 22nd May 2016. Click here for tickets.