Toast at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre review
- Credit: Archant
Having really enjoyed One Man Two Guvnors in London’s West End, I was keen to see another play written by Richard Bean, and hence very pleased it has coming to Surrey on its UK tour.
Toast, Bean’s first stage play, premiered at the Royal Court, London in 1999 where it was directed by Richard Wilson. This version is presented by Snapdragon Productions who aim to bring neglected and unknown works to new audiences.
Bean based his script on the twelve months he spent in a Hull bread factory prior to going to university where he studied psychology. The play features seven men who work alongside each other and is a master study of character and humanity. Not surprising for a psychology student, one may think, but Bean insists that the major influence on his writing was actually his year in the bakery.
The characters are keenly observed, from the uptight Peter who is keen to shake things up to ‘more-than-my-bob’s-worth’ Blakey, who assumes charge of the night shift although he is reminded frequently he is not ‘management’. There is good natured ex-fisherman Dezzie, an over jolly but sad-at-home Cecil (Simon Greenall), and Nellie (Matthew Kelly), who is portrayed as a man worn down by life but one who rises to the challenge in a crisis. Kelly says, “He is like the walking dead - battered by a lifetime of hard labour - but is the emotional heart of the play. It’s a big hearted, incredibly moving play about real people within a real community.” Kelly plays this somber role beautifully, every slight movement is well considered - I found it hard to take my eyes off him.
On the periphery of the group, but crucial to the play is troubled student Lance, whose characteristics are close to home for Bean himself. He very openly says, “I wasn’t suicidal like Lance, but I suppose I was a bit depressed, suffering a bit of teenage angst. The bakery brilliantly cured me in the way that is helps Lance to get an identity.”
The question of identity is a key theme of the play; although the ‘bakers’ are tired of their heavy work and sick of the heat and long hours, when the bakery is threatened with closure they realise how much this hot-house means to them, and how much they mean to each other. Bean says that it is not intended to be a political play and it is ‘more about alienation in a psychological way. It’s about how people spend their lives and get satisfaction from what looks pretty awful’.
It is set in the 70’s when major towns such as Hull were suffering economically from heavy industries closing down, for instance the fishing industry. Employment on the trawlers and associated businesses plummeted and the men went to work in factories such as the bakery. Toast is a great snapshot of a difficult time for the UK economy, a time of high inflation and political unrest.
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Having moved from the West End, the first act felt a bit slow to get off the ground, but it’s often thus so with a new set with the new dynamics of an unfamiliar theatre. The strong language on the other hand, kicks off from the word go and those with sensitive ears might fidget a little in their seats. It took a while for me to stop fretting about the impact of the F’s and C’s and to focus completely on the characters and the plot.
So, be patient while Act 1 sets the scene and introduces the characters. Once done, Act 2 lets rip and you can enjoy a colourful and punchy production with some well drawn, endearing relationships set within an interesting slice of social history. Eleanor Rhode’s direction worked well with some comic inter-action between the workers and moments of complete ennui and stillness. There was no need for any set changes, the stifling factory canteen with its communal kettle, public phone and functional tables was the epicentre for anger, tears, laughter and frequent, unabashed crudity. Toast is not for the faint-hearted, but it is refreshingly outspoken and the men with flour in their hair will stay in your thoughts for days after.
Toast is at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford until Saturday March 26. Box office: 01483 440000 / www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk