DramaReviewSouth Coast

Toast – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Writer: Richard Bean
Director:Eleanor Rhode
Reviewer: Steve Turner


Before going to university, writer Richard Bean spent a year in a bakery working on the production lines among men who had lost work owing to the decline of the fishing industry. This play, set in the canteen of a bread-making plant, demonstrates the effect this experience had on Bean even though it was written some 20 years later.

Set during the industrial turmoil of the early 1970s, the dialogue is full of cultural references of the time and is also full of the sort of industrial language you would expect from a 100% male workforce. The language proved a little too realistic for a couple of tonight’s theatre-goers, but it is an integral part of this portrayal of a downtrodden workforce, unhappy with their lot but unable to do anything about it.

All the action takes place in a canteen where we meet each character as they take their ‘smokes’ or their ‘half-hours’ or make their requests for ‘a flier’. Thankfully the programme contains a glossary of terms that the workforce use, one especially needed explaining, so it’s not hard to follow what is going on. The canteen itself is suitable grubby, especially the sign exhorting the workers to keep their canteen clean, and the overflowing sink and dustbin add to the realism. The casual slovenliness exhibited by the team is also well observed, everyone has their own way of trying to get their teabag into the bin or at least near it. In fact, the only thing missing from the canteen walls is a Pirelli calendar. The background hum and clatter of the bakery is a constant reminder to all that, even though you are on your break, work is never far away.

After a slow first act, exemplified by the long silences as old timer Nellie slowly munches on his cheese sandwiches, the action picks up in the second act when a real crisis occurs. Matthew Kelly as Nellie is the perfect example of a man resigned to working all the hours he can, with very little to look forward to and almost dreading retirement. Simon Greenall as Cecil is a breath of fresh air, always looking to have a laugh, cheerfully whistling his way around the place. However, when the chips are down he too reveals an unhappy undertone to his nature. With Steve Nicolson as the gruff, yet ultimately sympathetic chargehand Blakey, and Will Barton as the ambitious union rep, Colin, the interplay between the characters helps hold things together.

The whole ensemble work very well, their timing is impeccable and they each bring realism to their characters, even the slightly odd Lance, played by John Wark. Ostensibly a student on some sort of work experience, he is revealed to actually be on day release from the local psychiatric hospital; in the programme writer Richard Bean is quite clear that the character is not based on him!

Showing hints of what was to come from Richard Bean, this is ultimately a good work that just fails to hit the mark regularly enough. There are some good comedic moments, some carefully crafted characters and plenty of gritty dialogue but it doesn’t quite rise to the occasionif you’ll excuse the pun. That said it is a good evening’s entertainment, just be prepared for the language.

Runs until 26March 2016 | Image: Oliver King


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