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Slow burner

Posted: 22nd March 2016

Photo by Oliver King

Theatre review by Henry Ascoli

‘Toast’, at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Working through the night, ovens cranked up to full blast, a fleeting fag break the only escape from the monotony.

This intriguing comedy-drama lifts the lid on working class camaraderie, the fierce rebellion of the unions and staff exploitation, set in the depths of a run-down bread factory in Hull.

Yet this is no normal Sunday night shift. When crisis hits the factory, the men have more than their wages to lose. With their livelihoods hanging by a thread, who will step up to the plate and risk it all for the sake of their future…?

Every ritual, every nuance of the workplace is explored in excruciating detail during the early stages, as one by one the world-weary bread making team file through the factory doors.

In one particularly expressive moment, you can hear a pin drop as Nellie – another fine casting for Matthew Kelly, the warn out warhorse of the bakery, stares blankly into the middle distance while chewing on a slice of cheese – a vivid portrait of the tedium of factory life.

We meet Blakey (Steve Nicolson), the short-tempered chargehand who we suspect hides a dark secret from his time behind bars; tinman Cecil (Simon Greenall) who makes up for “not getting any” at home with his cheeky banter and chirpy nature.

In Peter (Matt Sutton) and Colin (Will Barton), we see two very different characters each influenced by their ties to the unions – the former cynical and doubtful of their benefits, the latter compelled to do everything ‘by the book’ in his underhand scheme to climb the company ladder.

Meanwhile, former deckhand Dezzie (Kieran Knowles) fights the clock – and his scooter helmet – while raving about the many benefits of having a house with running hot water!

Yet when we are introduced to the oddball newcomer Lance (John Wark), a ‘social and economic student’, the atmosphere in the rest room crackles with expectation. We are immediately aware that there is more to this character than meets the eye, and what should be a routine inspection of his hands before his first shift proves a pivotal moment in unearthing the subtext to the story.

Through humorous anecdotes and break time banter, we are offered a fleeting glimpse into the personal lives of each character and brief hints at their ambitions beyond the factory walls. Yet bubbling beneath the surface, we sense deeper struggles, of purpose, identity and belief.

Once again, it is Kelly’s striking stage presence which leads the way, but Greenall’s vibrant performance lends the character of Cecil similar impact. Wark’s vivid portrayal of the troubled Lance explores an altogether different dimension, allowing the play to reach a new level.

The stark set displays the factory in all its finery – the bin overflowing with old tea bags, the old tables covered in flour, stains creeping up the walls. Simple but effective.

And in truth, that is the key to success throughout – out of the drab surroundings of the factory comes a fine piece of theatre from Richard Bean, as his motley crew of workers ultimately set their differences aside and rise to the challenge in a bid to safeguard their future.

Undoubtedly a slow burner, this thought-provoking production offers something different, but ultimately leaves us wanting more.

Toast runs on the main stage at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre until Saturday 26th March. To book tickets and find out more, call 01483 440000 or visit www.yvonne-arnaud.co.uk