The life of staff: Toast at the Park Theatre

Saturday 30th August 2014, matinée

Toast is, unsurprisingly enough, set in a bread factory in the seventies.  Well, the time is indeterminate, but we assume it’s the seventies based on the clothes and lack of health and safety compliance.  A group of workers are struggling on in a run-down factory in Hull, knowing the company that owns it has just bought a newer place in Bradford, and as they say, you don’t keep your old car just because it’s still running.  They know they are living on borrowed time, and when the ovens break down in the middle of a Sunday night shift, with a massive order due, we find out just how far they will go to keep the factory running and save their jobs.

The set is lovingly crafted by James Turner to bring to life the most gloriously unhygienic canteen you might ever wish to avoid.  A bucket next to the sink seems to be overflowing with indeterminate brown rubbish until the first character expertly flings his old teabag on top of the pile and we realise this is an oft-repeated ritual, with some of the team more successful in their aim than others.  The ubiquitous sign urging them to ‘keep the canteen clean’ is ignored with a vengeance.  Behind the visible set, sound designer Max Pappenheim has created a convincing soundscape which suggests the throb of the factory and the insatiable ovens it contains.

You couldn’t find a better qualified person to write this play – Richard Bean worked in a bread plant for a year and half, and later trained as an occupational psychologist.  We don’t know where he learned his craft as a playwright, but the result is a beautifully observed portrait of men at work, or rather the moments between work, as all the action takes place with various combinations of characters nipping in and out for their breaks.  The writing is full of the minutiae of everyday life, making the characters real and bringing out each man’s individual eccentricities.  Whether it’s Peter, mourning the loss of his Chicken Kiev when the ovens break down, being reunited with the burnt remains of it later in the play to everyone’s delight, or veteran bread mixer Nellie, contemplating his cheese sandwiches with growing distaste, eventually throwing away the bread and keeping the filling.  And as for former deckhand Dezzie’s explanation of why you should never eat fish paste, that’s better left to the imagination (clue – it’s to do with lonely fishermen).

Director Eleanor Rhode has assembled a fine cast of seven actors and keeps the action well-paced.  Matthew Kelly is riveting as Nellie, who has worked in the factory for over forty years and picks potatoes on his holidays.  The fruits of his labours are clearly visible on his clothes and you can almost feel the dermatitis eating away at him.  He takes monosyllabicism to a whole new level, and Kelly proves once and for all that it’s not the number of lines that matter, but what you do with them.  Matt Sutton as Peter puts forward a good case for the opposite view.  He bursts on to the stage talking, and never stops, and his efforts to engage Nellie in conversation are hilarious, ending up as an extremely animated conversation with himself, but beneath the vitality is a short fuse waiting to ignite.  As Cecil, Simon Greenall brings relentless cheerfulness as a character who comes to work for a break from his inattentive wife.  Even fishing is a pretence.  Delighting in the small pleasures of life (such as his nut-grabbing competition with Peter), he is nevertheless scared of losing his job, and Greenall brings this out touchingly as the real prospect of life permanently at home starts to sink in.  Steve Nicolson as Blakey and Will Barton as Colin are the ambitious duo of the company, who discover half way through that they are both vying for the same job in the Bradford factory.  Nicolson brings a reassuring solidity to Blakey, unflappable and straight-talking, popular with the men because they know where they are.  Will Barton is nicely supercilious as fifth-columnist shop steward Colin, who fancies himself as a bit of a Machiavelli.  Nobody likes him even when he’s giving out strike pay and the moment when he realises he has been ‘hoist by his own petard’ is a joy to watch. Finlay Robertson as likeable dimwit Dezzie capitalises on some of the funniest lines of the play, while John Wark is suitability menacing as mysterious ‘student’ Lance.

This is an extraordinary writing debut for Bean, and we are grateful to Snapdragon productions and the Park Theatre for reviving it.  The play is well-crafted and very funny, but there is a dark undercurrent to it all, and a weightiness as we glimpse the fear behind the banter, and the stakes are raised bit by bit.  This could be the story of Chernobyl, the apparently universal human weakness for hoping you can fix everything before management find out.

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