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'Toast' Turns an Everyday Bread Factory into Art

Richard Bean’s insightful workplace drama finds a home at Brits Off Broadway.

Photo by Oliver King

Seven men work at a bread factory. Their boss calls in a large last-minute order that guarantees they will be up half the night completing it. But when an error with the oven causes a total halt to operations, the men desperately search for a solution, afraid that a failure to complete the order will cause the bread plant's owner to realize their old factory is obsolete and shut it down, costing all of them their jobs.

It's hardly the most thrilling of synopses, and yet Richard Bean's Toast is a beautifully constructed slice-of-life drama about the camaraderie amongst lower-class English bread plant workers in the 1970s. Bean is most famous for the hit comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, yet Toast, originally written in 1999, is a very different sort of piece. Here in its first major revival and its US premiere, the production directed by Eleanor Rhode shines a light on a tale that audiences may find sounding more familiar than they would have first imagined.

Toast captures the essence of workplace intimacy among men who spend more time with each other than with their own families. Though it takes a while for the story to get going, every detail revealed in the men's everyday interactions comes into play later on when the fate of their entire factory is on the line. Meanwhile, each character gets their own storyline that easily distinguishes him from the others and that we follow with as much interest as we do the overarching narrative—will Peter sell his car? Will Dezzie make it home to have sex with his wife? Will Colin's union organizing come to anything?

Other than the hint given by Peter's bell bottom jeans, it is difficult to discern in what era the events in Toast actually take place. These men in provincial England struggling to hang onto a dying industry in the face of new technology feel almost caught out of time, facing a battle many are still dealing with today. What does come through loud and clear, however, is the setting of Hull in Northern England, and though many in the audience may find the accents a little difficult to follow, the local language is essential to understanding the essence of the piece.

The production's commitment to realism is admirable, and goes far beyond just a Northern accent. An ever-growing pile of used teabags in the trashcan, a clock that keeps time in the world of the play as their order's deadline looms ever closer and actors regularly wandering through covered in bread dough all help create a world as inescapable for the audience as it is for the men who work there.

The one character who doesn't quite fit in is Lance, a student come to work at the factory temporarily whose higher-class accent and non-white clothing is as incomprehensible to the other men as the scars on his wrists. A rogue element whose presence threatens to upset the extreme naturalism of the play, it is not entirely clear at the end of the piece just what his motivations are in his interactions with the other workers. Still, his first one-on-one conversation with Nellie injects new life into a somewhat plodding first act and is one of the highlights of the play.

A true ensemble show, the 59E59 stage is graced by extraordinary acting all around. Of particular note is Matthew Kelly as the delightfully stoic Nellie and John Wark as painfully awkward Lance, as well as Simon Greenall's genuinely friendly Cecil and Kieran Knowles as the dimwitted but constantly enthusiastic Dezzie. But the piece wouldn't have been the same without any one of the performers, together making a play about bread a joy to watch.

Toast plays at 59E59 through May 22.

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