Review: Toast @ Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Review Hub

Snapdragon’s touring revival of Richard Bean’s first stage play, Toast, is the chance to relive the early footsteps of one of Britain’s most celebrated dramatists. Bean has been a phenomenally successful playwright in recent years, with the National’s productions of One Man, Two Guvnors and Great Britain both garnering awards and high-profile transfers and with Pitcairn earning critical acclaim at Chichester, The Globe and on a regional tour.

Toast, which was originally produced at the Royal Court in 1997, draws heavily on Bean’s own experiences of manual labour in his native Hull. It presents seven men working the night shift in an industrial bread factory, each adding his own problems and partialities into the mix. Eleanor Rhode’s production, which first ran at Finsbury Park’s Park Theatre in 2014, is delectably unhurried but lacks the vim and vigour when required to make it truly burn.

Set entirely in James Turner’s dank, dusty break-room set, with the distant rumble of machinery echoing throughout and an ever-growing mound of used teabags in the corner, Toast offers up a slice of 1970s working class life. Throughout the first half, Bean uses the innovative device of the tea-break to push a conveyor belt of characters across the stage. One man finishes his cigarette, leaves, and is replaced by another. The idle chit-chat of those on their breaks works a rich tapestry of hand-to-mouth existences in a failing economy.

The men, a motley crew of young and old, are largely defined by their work. There is Blakey (Steve Nicolson), the ex-con chargehand tiredly taking charge; Peter (Matt Sutton), the talkative, flare-jeaned father of three; Dezzie (Kieran Knowles), the former fisherman adjusting to life on land; Cecil (Simon Greenall), the ageing joker with a distant wife; Colin (Will Barton), the smarmy suck-up after a better job; and Lance (John Wark), the hesitant, ill-fitting newbie with a larger vocabulary than the others put together. All are impressive, and all manage to draw out Bean’s dry, Northern wit well and churn out his script’s specialist vernacular as if they had spoken it all their lives.

Most impressive, however, is Matthew Kelly’s lumbering Nellie, a slow-moving oil-tanker of a man with a foghorn of a voice. Kelly is magnetic, managing to hold the audience’s attention for minutes on end as he methodically eats his pitiful lunch, sighing to himself and gazing balefully around. The snatched details of his life that can be gleaned from his monosyllabic conversations paint a devastatingly bleak picture of a man perversely satisfied with his minuscule lot.

Rhode’s direction is captivatingly methodical. Great silences yawn either side of terse exchanges, but the audience is kept rapt with attention by the smallest flickers of movement: a slowly burning cigarette, the gently sipped cup of tea, the bovine chewing of a cheese sandwich. But when disaster strikes halfway through and the factory workers’ future is thrown into jeopardy, Rhode’s production has a hard time heaving itself out of this established rhythm. There is little urgency, little immediacy as a result, and the majority of the second half feels tonally lost.

Toast is noticeably underdeveloped, especially when compared to Bean’s recent successes, but it is nonetheless a captivatingly frank portrait of working class life in 1970s Yorkshire. Rhode’s production has its flaws but also boasts a set of fine performances and shines a fascinating light on the early work of a prominent playwright.

4/5

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