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Toast

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 1, 2016


Matthew Kelly and John Wark
Photo by Oliver King

Is there such a thing as white lung disease? Because if there is a counterpart to black lung disease, the coal miner's nemesis, then surely the characters in Richard Bean's Toast are at high risk, given their constant exposure to dust storms of flour at the bread factory where they toil hour after hour, day after day. Their clothing, their dermatitis-prone itchy bodies, and even the room where they take periodic breaks are all coated, and their conversations are punctuated with hacking coughs.

Opening today as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters, Toast was first produced in 1999, more than a decade before Mr. Bean's comedy One Man, Two Guvnors drew international acclaim. This is a much different sort of play, focusing on the lives of a group of working class men in Northern England in the 1970s. Jobs are hard to come by for unskilled laborers such as those depicted here, and even though the play takes place prior to the Margaret Thatcher years, it's not difficult to see how the economic pressure is building up a head of steam in advance of the great labor-management battles to come.

The play takes place in the break room, with the men periodically entering, resting, eating their meager meals of fish paste or cheese sandwiches, and bantering and conversing with one another. Be on notice that the play is full of local slang, and the actors speak in accents thick enough to need an industrial bread slicer to cut through. There are no supertitles or vocabulary lists in the program to guide you, so don't be surprised if you miss some of what is being said.

But gradually you do get to know the men: Blakey (Steve Nicolson), the one in charge on this particularly stressful Sunday; Colin (Will Barton), the shop steward who is not above cozying up to the boss; the playful Cecil (Simon Greenall); Peter (Matt Sutton); Dezzie (Kieran Knowles); the oddball newcomer Lance (John Wark); and, especially Nellie (Matthew Kelly), weary from years of eking out a living at the bakery, so that he is unable even to engage in small talk. Director Eleanor Rhode allows minutes to go by (minutes that are counted down in real time on a clock on the wall) focused on Nellie as he smokes a cigarette or pulls the cheese out of a sandwich and eats it, while discarding the slices of bread; after the thousands and thousands of loaves he has shaped and baked, the gesture is significant. And even though there are no women on the scene, it is clear the men very much miss their wives and families when they have to work double shifts and weekends.

No one hanging around on James Turner's uncomfortable-looking set would dream of examining their existential angst, but they certainly live it. It cannot be a coincidence that the head honcho is named Beckett, never seen but always on the men's minds as they worry about keeping their jobs. They know the bread factory must keep running at its fullest capacity, or Mr. Beckett will order it shut down for good. So when an emergency arises that threatens to kill the operation, the men pull together to work on a solution. This may be the play's most compelling section, when a disparate group of workers with little in common but their work becomes a real team, a jerry-rigged family. Even more surprising is the fact that you really begin to care what will happen to them, even if you can't always understand what they are saying.


Toast
Through May 22
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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