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A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
This production, which toured the UK after its London run, brings to New York the distinguished English character actor Matthew Kelly, who won an Olivier Award as Lennie in Birmingham Rep's revival of Of Mice and Men. Despite Kelly's presence, Toast has no leading role; its seven actors, under director Eleanor Rhode, are giving performances as balanced and precise as a top-flight chamber-music ensemble.
Toast takes place during the graveyard shift in a dilapidated bread plant in the north of England (it's a dinky outpost of a major regional baking company). The play premiered at London's Royal Court in 1999 and was Bean's playwriting debut. Its setting is inspired by his early experience on the factory line in a Wonderloaf bakery in his native Hull.
Bean's characters, all men, come together in the dingy industrial canteen where they're permitted brief smoking breaks and a half-hour refueling period per shift. Kelly's portrayal of Walter "Nellie" Nelson, the oldest of the workers, is keenly observed and heartbreakingly detailed. Nellie is frail and reticent and irrationally devoted to his place of employment. He's one of those melancholy souls who may not love his job but is at loose ends everywhere else and useless with free time. After 40 years in a back-breaking job, Nellie still has six years before he can retire with anything akin to financial security. His listless demeanor, seeming despair, and vacant, far-off gaze suggest he could be carried out of the factory feet first at any time.
All of Bean's characters are intricately delineated and humorously so. There's the self-important shop steward (Will Barton), as ineffectual as the union he represents; the cagey shift manager (Steve Nicolson), who edits to his own advantage any information flowing between management and the factory floor (and vice versa); a World War II veteran (Simon Greenall) who masks his sexual frustration and late-life disappointment with off-color jokes and pranks, such as surprise attacks on the genitals of one of the younger men (Matt Sutton). A substitute worker (John Wark), arriving after the shift is under way, immediately strikes the other men as strange and, in the course of the night, proves more bizarre than they could have imagined.
Toast has arrived in a theater season that has already seen a number of plays about characters struggling to hang on in dark times and dire circumstances. The bread-makers of Toast live in the north of England during the recession of the mid-1970s, when Edward Heath's Conservative government, thoroughly worsted in its wrestling match with double-digit inflation, is being forced to cede the reins of government to Harold Wilson and the Labour opposition.
From the perspective of Bean's blue-collar workers, the pre-Thatcher England of Toast looks much like Great Recession Detroit in Dominique Morisseau's Skeleton Crew, the fine, taut drama that ran at the Atlantic Theater earlier this season and returns this month. In both plays, the workers face staggering uncertainties — rumors of imminent job cuts or shut down of their factory; danger from outdated machinery; insufficient work place supervision; unreasonable demands from management; squirrelly union representation; minuscule raises or flat wages. From Skeleton Crew and The Humans to Taylor Mac's Hir, Martyna Majok's Ironbound, Mona Mansour's The Way West (all reviewed at Curtainup) and, now, Toast, this season's non-musical plays dramatize the difficulty of staying afloat.
The physical world of Toast, created by designers James Turner (set) and Mike Robertson (lighting), is sunless and grime-encrusted, with a dusting of flour. The design elements are just right for the material and entirely believable. Both play and production (from England's Snapdragon Productions and Jagged Fence Theatre) call to mind the working-class dramas of Arnold Wesker, who died last month and whose plays also premiered at the Royal Court.
Back in 2012, One Man, Two Guvnors announced to New York that Bean has an original voice and, even amid the silliness of his retooling of Goldoni's farce The Servant of Two Masters, a keen eye for character. Toast demonstrates that he has had those gifts from the beginning of his career.