- OnStage New York Critic
Produced by Snapdragon Productions in association with Jagged Fence Theater, Toast is brought to New Yorkers as a part of Brits Off Broadway festival. One truly feels as though they are traveling in space and time as an all-male cast brings us to a bread factory in Hull, England in 1975.
The only set of the play is meticulously build and painfully realistic. It features a break room of a factory where workers of the Sunday shift hang out, drink tea, play cards, smoke cigarettes, complain about life and play pranks on each other. They are all fed up with the work and everybody hates Sunday shifts the most. But everybody seems to have some kind of respite – a young wife waiting at home, joking around with old friends. Everybody seems to be hanging there despite the hard thankless toil, long hours and challenging life conditions; everybody except for Nellie (Matthew Kelly).
When Nellie shows up in the brake room, his face, his arms and his clothes are coated with flour, which seems like it’s at least several days old. Nellie seems like a person who got completely devoured by his work and became a man of few words, half man and half bread loaf. Peter, the only worker at the factory who wears his everyday clothes (which is the only obvious indicator of the time period) loses himself when left alone with Nellie while trying to have a small talk. He gets angry at Nellie when the old man doesn’t talk much and seems uninterested in everything around him.
When Peter leaves back to the bread plant and Nellie stays alone, we see him throwing bread from his sandwich towards the trash can buried in teabags while slowly eating a piece of cheese and staring into the void of the audience. The scene gets a laugh, the man is so tired of bread he can’t even eat it. But in fact he looks really sad as he slowly eats the lonely piece of cheese, not because he is enjoying it, but because he doesn’t have much to do. He would like to smoke but his wife gives him only one pack of cigarettes a week. He takes one out, glances at the clock and puts the cigarette back in disappointment.
During the first act I found myself looking at the clock above the door often too, I swear it goes slower than my watch. Sometimes you hear it ticking; sometimes the distant hum of working machines fills up the silence. Sound design by Max Pappenhime is as subtle as it is scrupulous.
The set design by James Turner has the same attributes. During the long scene in the beginning when Blakey (Steve Nicolson) walks the room, we have a chance to “walk” with him. Blakey unpacks his lunch, pours himself some water from the boiler and then takes aim at the overflowing trashcan with the teabag. You can see that some of the throwers weren’t very precise and a few bags landed on the floor, on the sink or stuck to the wall. The set, very simple and dull on the first glance, is filled with the small details like this, which makes it look utterly realistic and oddly familiar.
The balance between personal and unifying is shown cleverly through these little traces of the human existence: identical jars for milk, some of them empty on the sink, some of them full or half full on the tables; flour prints of different hands on the furniture; identical teabags dried out in different spots.
These delicate details mirror and enhance the text of the play in which six factory workers are living their own lives, but because of the work at the bread plant, which takes so much out of them, they are at risk of becoming mechanical attachments to the stoves. As the flour dust is covering every surface in the break room, their lives are slowly getting covered with it too. Perhaps that’s why Peter was so angry at Nellie because he felt the threat of becoming like him.
Talking and goofing around goes on until the student Lance (John Wark) joins the company. His awkwardness, naïve enthusiasm and bright clothes distinguish him from the others. And we see what the true reason for it is when he confesses to Nellie that he is the messenger who was sent to the factory to tell Nellie that he is destined to die that evening. The dimmed light of the scene suggests that Lance is not kidding.
I spend the intermission on the edge of my seat excited for a realistic play to take a metaphysical turn. The second act opens with the news that the stove is broken and someone needs to go inside in order to stop the baking, which will leave just enough time to make a new batch of bread before the morning comes.
The quickly unfolding events make you think that this is where the catastrophe will happen. But the good play that it certainly is, Toast is often unpredictable. The playwright Richard Bean switches genre gears in a heartbeat mainly through the character of Lance.
A brilliant cast directed by Eleanor Rhode delivers some warm and gentle comedy, which is not always easy to follow because of the mumbling of thick British accents. The comedy is not the genre tag I would attach to the play though. A comedic element here is more like a necessary measure of survival in harsh work conditions of the factory then it is a tool of entertaining the audience. I wouldn’t call Toast a workplace drama too even though the factory problems are discussed all the time and it is the malfunction of the equipment that pushes the events forward.
You can look at Toast as a tapestry of charismatic bread factory workers dealing with the crisis and enjoy it this way. But to me the most interesting experience was being caught when I wanted plot “candy”, that metaphysical twist, and didn’t quite get it. Instead of that I got more “bread”, the everyday peoples’ collisions. The bread is more nutritious than candy though. When it’s made just right it’s the greatest food you can have.