Toast, Park Theatre | reviews, news & interviews
Toast, Park Theatre
Toast, Park Theatre
Richard Bean's play about a bread plant in Hull in the 1970s rises to the occasion
Richard Bean has had a busy year, and it isn’t over yet. Great Britain, his bawdy play about press ethics and police corruption, is transferring to the West End after hitting the spot at the National. Pitcairn, a new piece about the aftermath of the mutiny on the Bounty, will shortly arrive at the Globe after turning heads at the Chichester Theatre. And Made in Dagenham, a musical version of the 2010 film for which Bean has provided the book, looks likely to be one of the West End highlights of the autumn.
Given all that, it’s fitting that we should take a step back and remember where it all began. Toast was Bean’s breakthrough work, premiering at the Royal Court in 1999. It draws on his gap year experiences of working at an industrial bread plant in Hull in the 1970s, where he filled the depressingly-titled role of “Spare Wank”. Revived now at the Park Theatre, it’s an excellent reminder of where one of the UK’s most prolific playwrights began.
Bleaker times are hinted at, but are never permitted to dominateAll the action takes place in the staff canteen, where the men who work at the plant come to have their “half-hour” or “smoke” in between tending to the plant’s vast, ancient oven. This oven is arguably the play’s main character, although we never catch a glimpse of it - everything is shaped around its whims. It’s old and outdated, and in order to keep it going it can never be allowed to cool down, meaning that the men work punishing shifts to keep up with it. It’s also a symbol of an industrial struggle - if the oven breaks, the plant’s owners will have the perfect excuse to shut the Hull operation down and move production to a state-of-the-art facility in Bradford.
As the men dash in and out of the canteen, we get warm, gentle comedy: tea bags are flicked at a bucket, hands of cards are played, caravans are discussed. The cheerful grumbling is recognisable to anyone who has ever had a repetitive, tedious job, but there’s affection there too - as Cecil, one of the bakers, remarks: “I’m either here or I’m fishing, and I don’t really like fishing”. Bleaker times are hinted at, but are never permitted to dominate: Blakey, the “Charge Hand”, has done time in prison, while Dezzie used to be a deckie, a trawlerman who served in the Cod Wars.
In this revival, Matthew Kelly (above, with John Wark) is excellent as the ponderous, shambling Walter - the old-timer who has worked at the plant since he was 14. Alone on the set at the play’s crisis point, he creates a mood of tense panic with just his wordless cries. His hefty performance contrasts well with that of John Wark, as Lance, the mysterious student in corduroy and posh brown brogues. The harsh overhead strip lighting makes his round face gleam as he ambushes other characters with wide-eyed, otherworldly monologues that baffle and enrage. We can never fully understand who Lance is or what he wants, but the play deliberately avoids inquiring too deeply. In Toast, as long as you’ve got work and some mates to do it with, you’re doing alright.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?