Toast – Theatre Royal, Nottingham

Writer: Richard Bean

Director: Eleanor Rhode

Reviewer: James Garrington

Playwright Richard Bean is probably best known for his more recent work, most notably One Man, Two Guv’nors as well as Great Britain and the book for the musical version of Made in Dagenham – work which is high slapstick humour, sharp satire, or well-observed with fully-developed characters. Much earlier in his career – his first professionally produced play – came Toast, a piece which builds on Bean’s experiences working in a bakery when he left school.

Set in the rest room of the bakery during the night shift, the workers have to deal with a crisis that threatens to close the factory. Various stereotypes emerge: the shop steward with his rule book, the man full of tales from his previous job, the one who has worked there all his life and knows nothing else. Each has their own character, and together they try to rub along and keep things on track – though pretty much all of them would rather be somewhere else.

This is a factory in a north-east already hit by competition and failing industries, and now on its last legs itself. It is somewhere full of different personalities, with their different problems and ambitions. This is surely a setting that provides a wealth of opportunity for humour, for satire, for observation. Yet Bean’s play somehow manages to simply smoulder through two hours without ever quite bursting into flame. For anyone who has worked in this sort of environment, the characters and references will doubtless strike a chord – but they are neither larger-than-life enoughnor sufficiently developed, to resonate. The tension in Eleanor Rhode’s production is negligible and the comedy relatively sparse.

The cast all work hard and have immersed themselves into their characters. Matthew Kelly is in excellent form as Nellie, the slow-witted 45-year veteran of the bakery. Kelly is always self-assured on stage, never more so than here, where he happily uses long pauses that add comedy or build his character. Somehow you can’t take your eyes off him. He is surrounded by six other talented actors, who deliver some notable performances too. Steve Nicholson is nicely angry as the charge-hand who is paid a pittance, yet expected to keep things going in the absence of any management, and Simon Greenall (Cecil) introduces a few good moments of comedy trying to compensate for his sexual frustration. Kieran Knowles (Dezzie) is full of sometimes lewd fishy tales as an ex-trawlerman, desperate to get home to his wife who is excited by having hot water on tap, and John Wark (Lance) excels as the outsider brought in to cover for an absence, and who may or may not be a student.

Bean has gone on to write many wonderful plays, but this production of his early work feels underdeveloped by comparison. It has humour, but you wouldn’t call it a comedy. It has tension, yet it’s nowhere near sufficient to justify being called a dramatic thriller. The characters may end up out of work, some may even lose more than just their income – but we don’t get to know them enough to really care. This is an evening that ends with a whimper, not a bang; and while enjoyable, it is ultimately unfulfilling.

Runs until 9 April 2016 | Image: Oliver King

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