Richard Bean’s 1999 play Toast is set in the break-room of a soon-to-be obsolete bread factory in 1970s Hull. Under Eleanor Rhode’s thoughtful direction, the revival is surprisingly gentle, if bawdy. Think Made in Dagenham meets Kinky Boots, with more flour, fewer kinks and no women. Indeed, Bean wrote the script for the musical of Made in Dagenham. But Toast is not a play about effecting social change. It does not further women’s rights – it makes jokes about baps – nor does it break down boundaries – it singles out the most effeminate character and calls him a poof. Rather, Toast is a play about seven men who are sexist, lewd and lost, but for their bakery and each other.
Politics simmers away in the background, but the talk of strikes and union pay never bubbles over. More relevant to the men is the economy of packed lunches (nothing worse than fish paste), smoke breaks and half-hour breaks (there’s an important difference). The bakery is what they know and what defines them. This is especially true of long standing employee Walter, nicknamed Nellie and played by Matthew Kelly. Nellie is as big as a bread oven and, just like the factory’s own dodgy oven, if you turn him off there’s a high chance he’ll never get going again. Kelly shines as the monosyllabic “mixer” who only lights up when he’s talking about bread. Simon Greenwall also gives a standout performance as the aging but childish Cecil who keeps asking everyone if they’re “getting enough”. These recycled conversations confirm the men’s uniformity whilst also revealing the subtle differences between the characters.
The first half of the play is slow and conversational, much like you would imagine a Sunday shift without the management would be. But it ends in a brilliantly, and bizarrely, macabre twist intensified by Max Pappenheim’s hellish off-stage factory noises and Mike Robertson’s worrisome flashing lights. The second, slightly shorter, half diffuses this tension only to build it up and then diffuse it again, ad infinitum. It is the arrival of an initially ridiculous and later sinister outsider in the form of dubious student and casual labourer, Lance, that gives this slow Sunday it’s structure. In this regard, Rhode’s part-farcical, part-unsettling production is reminiscent of Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen. But the student, or Sir Lancelot as he is dubbed by the bakers, is a red herring. His attempts to disconcert the characters peter out, and instead he is subsumed into the group identity. He discovers he has a knack for breadmaking and like each of the characters latches on to this newfound purpose.
Toast has been much praised as a well-observed play, and, as far as someone who has never stepped foot inside a 70s bread factory can tell, it is. But, for me, it was the staging that lifted this production out of the ordinary. At times the slow then fast pacing didn’t quite work; the arrival of the play’s ending felt simultaneously too abrupt and too neat. But I liked the odd motion, it captured the warped time of the working day and fitted with the strange mundanity of Bean’s play. As Cecil says, it’s a fine line between madness and sanity, sadness and… manity… The feeling of odd normality was cleverly exaggerated by James Turner’s hyperrealistic, beige-stained set complete with a clock ticking in real time throughout the length of the show. Watching someone else’s time pass is a strange sensation especially when their time is also your time. The play might have ended sooner than I expected, but isn’t that the sign of a good shift?
Toast is on at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 13th February. Click here for tickets.