Set during the mid 1970s, playwright Richard Bean’s Toast, draws its characters and themes from real life workers in the baking and fishing industry around Hull. Both industries are seen in the midst of an economic meltdown; the fishing industry is becoming crippled by the Cod Wars and the baking industry is heading towards a very different commercial and industrial future where automation would replace many manual jobs.
Satisfying and thought provoking
The action of the play is set in the bakery workers rest room, a grubby soulless environment fit only for drinking tea, wolfing down a sandwich or chuffing on a ciggy. The humour is very male, the language naturally fruity and the blokey behaviour concentrates on whether they are getting enough sex, the sexual exploits of others or the jokey banter about puffs (homosexual men). However there are deeper matters at stake and the mens’ concerns about their livelihoods and futures inside and outside of the bakery are brought out when the main oven breaks down due to a trapped baking tin. The men have the choice to go home with full pay or stay and fix the problem without the management knowing.
Two spectres haunt their decision; that of not fulfilling their target of bakery products on the Sunday night shift (with an additional burden of taking on another factory’s big order) and the more onerous one of redundancy in the near future. Getting things desperately wrong this Sunday evening will potentially hasten the end.
Matthew Kelly is absolutely terrific as Nellie; a man well past his working prime who lives solely for the bakery. We get the impression that his work as a mixer at the bakery is all that exists in life for Nellie. He may be a struggle to get a conversation out of but he is willing to put his life at risk by climbing into the hot oven to save the production line. Not many actors could hold an audience rapt as he silently eats a cheese sandwich for five minutes but Kelly does it and much more. His performance is magnetic.
The cast are all male and the characters are no clichéd bunch. Each man is a complex being and utterly truthful in the writing and equally so in the playing by actors Steve Nicolson, Will Barton, Simon Greenall, Matt Sutton, Kieran Knowles and John Wark. So good are they that one feels that one knows these men personally and can envisage their partners and lives outside of the workplace. This is down to exceptional acting from exceptional writing.
Director Eleanor Rhode is not afraid to play with silence and much of the comedy is typically brought about by contradicting the audience’s expectations. Toast is a very funny play but not flippant in its subject. It has its roots in reality and therefore great drama is drawn out of the work and the comical-dramatical combination makes for a very satisfying and thought provoking evening at the theatre. One can almost envisage the classical faces of comedy and tragedy covered in flour with a ciggy dangling from each mouth shape.
Toast runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday 9th April.
Strong language throughout.