Review: Toast at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford
The lovely Debbie in Sussex caught Toast, before it arrived at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford. And she can report that it’s a slice of drama that’s well done. It opens tonight and runs until Saturday.
The play, based on writer Richard Bean’s own early experiences, concerns seven men working a night shift in a Hull bread factory in the early Seventies. Among them are an old timer played by Mathew Kelly (yes, really, the one from Stars in Their Eyes), who has worked on the line for 45 years, and a student, new that day, who may not be quite what he seems.
Toast is set entirely over the carefully assigned smoke and food breaks the men are allowed, so the number of people on stage continually varies until everyone comes together in a moment of crisis. The action unfolds through banter, practical jokes, and a series of phone calls to the factory management and the mens’ wives.
There was a slightly amusing sign outside the theatre door warning of swearing for ‘artistic purposes.’ As you might expect from a play built entirely on male workplace banter the bad language from a couple of characters is strong and prolific so bear this in mind if it’s something that bothers you.
…And definitely don’t come expecting a farce in the vein of Bean’s recent hit One Man, Two Guvnors. Though the humour in Toast is consistent, it is a lot more subtle. The strength of the play is how deftly it flips between the comic and near tragic. As one actor put it in the aftershow Q&A: “It’s ha ha ha… oh sh*t”.
Essentially, Toast is a character piece. One of my favourite parts is when a young worker gets increasingly frustrated quizzing Matthew Kelly’s monosyllabic Nellie about his upcoming caravanning holiday. On the surface, the old timer’s lack of detail or enthusiasm are funny but you sense a very real fear in the youngster that this is what he will become; a man unable to converse about more than who’s doing what on that day’s production line. Later we learn another character’s boundless enthusiasm for long hours at the factory reflects a sadness in his home life.
There is little in the way of action beyond some comic crotch grabbing and the narrative arc is slight, but there are moments of peril, ramped up by eerie industrial off-stage sound effects. A strange portent ends the first act and we’re left feeling that a man’s ghostly covering of flour may be symbolic of something more sinister.
The acting is consistently good and Matthew Kelly is a revelation. When his character believes he has made a serious mistake he cowers against a wall like a dog. In a more comic scene he is able to hold the audience by doing nothing more than deconstructing and eating a cheese sandwich. He trained as an actor before he ever became a light entertainment host and I’m not surprised he landed an Olivier award for a previous role.
Though it is not an overtly political play, the historical background of strikes, unemployment and decline of traditional industries runs throughout. An ex-trawlerman’s obsession with the hot water in his new house is comic, yet touching. When an oven breaks down in the second act, there’s a real fear. The men badly need their jobs and with the plant rumoured to be threatened with closure, they cannot afford mistakes. Though their slapdash precautions are funny, the risks they are prepared to take to rectify the fault are deadly serious.
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Millbrook, Guildford, Surrey GU1 3UX. Tel: 01483 44 00 00. Tickets: £23-£34.50. yvonne-arnaud.co.uk. Until 26 Mar