Richard Bean has hit the big time with One Man, Two Guvnors and Made in Dagenham. Toast, his first play, was produced at The Royal Court in 1999 and it’s a broad expletive-laden comedy set in a bakery in Hull on one eventful night shift. Director Eleanor Rhode allows the actors space to develop their distinct characters – the careworn charge-hand, the on-the-make shop steward and the taciturn dough mixer. It’s a strange mixture – mostly gritty realism but with hints of weirdness – and the uneven tone sometimes prevents the essentially bleak message really hitting home.
The bread plant is staffed by men frightened that the owner may shut it down in favour of a plant in Leeds that has had money spent on new machinery. It’s set in a Hull that has seen the traditional jobs related to the fishing industry decimated, so work in the bakery is seen as a last chance for proper wages by some of the men. Bean worked for a year in such a workplace and clearly has enormous sympathy for the fears that drive his workers – and the humour that they generate to keep themselves sane. The dialogue whizzes along and the switches between obscene humour and confessions of misery are managed with deft control.
All the actors have their moments. I particularly admired the quiet desperation of Peter, played by Matt Sutton – in debt, trapped in a job he hates, but terrified of redundancy. When he loses control, it feels very real. The billboard star, Matthew Kelly, has a very tough job investing his sad and lost character, Nellie, with the human qualities that might win the audience’s sympathy. His slack-jawed gaze and the extended pauses as he searches for something – other than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – to say to his colleagues are difficult to warm to, but he comes good in the crisis at the end of the drama.
Some aspects really grated with me – the horseplay between Cecil and Peter was gross and the constant references to “sex with the wife” were charmless. No women appear on stage – they are only voices on the phone. The arrival of the outsider – the student temp, Lance, played by John Wark – doesn’t quite work because his lines just don’t ring true. One suspects that Richard Bean has a lot more feel for the language of the working men than for that of the mature student – though it is only fair to admit that Lance turns out to be a very different person from the man we meet in Act 1. I was disappointed with the ending which was a damp squib when we had been led up to expect something a lot more fiery.
There is a lot of laughter in this play and plenty to set us thinking about what it is like to work in a rotten job where the only reward is in the friendships you develop with colleagues. It works well on the Rose stage and the actors are 100% committed. I wonder what the writer might do with the same theme now and whether we might get something a bit darker alongside the laughter.