As the soft light over the audience dimmed, the stage of the Oxford Playhouse was lit with an artificial, electric white light which had the bleak quality of a hospital waiting room. Set in the decaying leisure room of a bread factory in northern England, Richard Bean’s 1999 play, Toast, follows seven factory workers going about their night shift. Crucially though, none of the factory work takes place on stage. Instead, the play depicts the workers’ down time, their conversations, and the tensions which gradually reveal themselves as their shift goes on.
The best thing about the production was undoubtedly its cast. Matthew Kelly was mesmerising as Nellie. His whole appearance, from his lined face to his floured, soiled vest perfectly conveyed the sense of a worker worn down by years of monotony. His facial expressions said more than most words could.
Matt Sutton played Peter with hilarious cynicism, while Blakey, played by Steve Nicolson, was comically blunt, delivering profanities with perfect emphasis. All the characters, in fact, exploited Bean’s brand of black humour with panache. The problem was that for a play marketed as a comedy, the humour wasn’t quite consistent enough. John Wark did the best he could with the fairly sketchily-written character of Lance, but I couldn’t quite see where the character fitted in to the themes discussed in the play.
Indeed, despite some excellent acting, the play left me feeling distinctly underwhelmed. The writing was sluggish at times, especially in the first half, and as a whole the drama simply wasn’t substantial or urgent enough to keep me interested. What dismayed me most was the sense of unfulfilled potential. Bean’s writing touched on profound topics, but left them largely unexplored. The setting and characters established a perfect frame in which to explore issues of labourers’ rights, but apart from a few mentions of ‘the union’ and the unseen manager of the factory, Beckett, the theme seemed superficial. Similarly, ideas about depression and suicide reared their heads once of twice, but each time it felt like a non-sequitur. Toast was Richard Bean’s first professionally-staged play, and at times it did seem more like an early draft than a fully-formed creation.
Good theatre should be entertaining, and should ask questions of the audience. For me, Toast fulfilled neither role satisfactorily, leaving a production whose moments of comedy were too fleeting and not quite funny enough to make up for the thinness of thematic exploration. This was a play which seemed to ask very few questions, and give very few answers.
‘Toast’ runs at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 20th February. More information can be found on their website.