19 May 2016


“I love work plays,” says British playwright Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors).  “Work has hierarchy, hope, ambition, need, compromise, tragedy, and comedy.”  Bean has reason to know, largely from his own lived experience before turning to writing plays for a living.  “Work,” he continues, “is society touching the individual.  Work is the individual engaging in society.”  The  writer knows a little something of this aspect of human endeavor as well, as you’ll soon learn.  “Often the language is richer, saltier for sure, but also more revealing.”  And there you have three aspects of Bean’s creds as a playwright: a worker, someone familiar with the functioning of the human mind, and a writer with a practiced ear for both ordinary speech and a funny line.  All of these are manifested in his 1999 serio-comic study of men at work, Toast, in its U.S. première at 59E59 Theaters.

Richard Bean, 60 next month, was born in Hull, England, the East Yorkshire port city that’s also the home town of his younger colleague in the playwriting dodge, Tom Wells (Jumpers for Goalposts; see my report posted on 23 May 2015).  Bean’s father was a policeman and his mother was a hairdresser.  Hull, where Toast is set, is a port city of a quarter million inhabitants on the Humber Estuary, about 198 miles north of London and 61 miles east of Leeds.  (Hull has been named the U.K. City of Culture for 2017.)  After grammar school, when he was 18, Bean worked in a bread plant before leaving to study social psychology at Loughborough University in Leicestershire (108 miles southwest of Hull).  He worked as an occupational psychologist for 15 years in the personnel and training departments of factory businesses and as a stand-up comic from 1989 to 1994 before turning to playwriting; he’s said both professions have been useful to his writing, as has his life in Hull among the fishermen (Under the Whaleback, 2003) and his year at the bread factory, which became the setting for Toast

Coming to playwriting late in his life, he says he had “no connection with the arts” until he was 30.  “Theatre wasn’t part of my life,” Bean admits.  Having graduated with a science degree, Bean had little background in literature, so he began reading on his own after university.  “Specifically I started reading Henry Miller, [Jack] Kerouac, [John] Steinbeck, and [Joseph] Conrad—just for fun really,” the playwright explained, “but it was Henry Miller who corrupted me just through serendipity.”  Bean was working in the personnel office of a telecommunications company when he began reading Tropic of Capricorn, Miller’s account “of his life in New York and Brooklyn.”  Bean discovered that Miller, too, was employed in the personnel office of a telecommunications company—“and so, bit by bit, I started writing.”

Bean’s first attempts at writing led him into stand-up comedy.  He came to playwriting by chance, in a way, when he saw a production of David Storey’s play The Changing Room; the Naturalism of the staging was Bean’s first influence in theatrical style.  “I thought it was rather boring as I sat and watched it, and then theatre magic worked on me, I couldn’t get it out of my head, and then I realized how I might dramatize my year’s work at a mass production bread factory.”  That play became Toast

His work in the bread plant gave Bean more than just bread-baking stories:

The year I spent working in a factory was the best for becoming a writer because I was doing six 12 hour shifts a week standing listening to dialogue.  When you do boring factory work, if you’ve got the opportunity to talk you’re talking to entertain each other.  You go deeper and deeper and get more and more intimate.  For me that year spent working in the bakery was the best year of my life in terms of becoming a playwright.

Bean began writing plays in the early 1990s, penning some radio sketches and the libretto for an opera, Paradise of Fools (1995) by Stephen McNeff.  His first full-length play, Of Rats and Men, set in a psychology lab, was staged in 1996 at London’s Canal Cafe Theatre and went on to the Edinburgh Festival; he adapted the play for BBC Radio in 1997.  His next stage play, Bean’s first major work, was Toast in 1999, presented at the Royal Court Upstairs in London.  Since then, he’s written 25 plays, including a musical (Made in Dagenham, 2014) and his hit Broadway début, One Man, Two Guvnors, which premièred at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton Theatre in London in May 2011, directed by Nicholas Hytner, prior to going on tour in the United Kingdom before landing in London’s West End in November 2011.  It opened on Broadway in April 2012, winning the 2012 Tony for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play for James Corden and receiving six other Tony nominations; One Man also won three 2012 Drama Desk Awards and the 2012 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Play.  In 2011 Bean became the first dramatist to win the Evening Standard Award for Best Play for two plays, One Man and The Heretic.  His future plans include two new plays to be staged in Hull in 2017 as part of the City of Culture year: The Hypocrite, about Hull’s part in the English Civil War of 1642-51, and an untitled play about stand-up comedians.

Bean’s original title for Toast was Wonderloaf, which happens to be the brand name of the bread the playwright spent 12 months making in the Hull factory.  But Homepride Spillers, the bakery company, objected and set their lawyers on Bean and the play was retitled just before opening at the Royal Court.  “I still actually have a ticket with Wonderloaf printed on it,” says Bean, one of the very few left, he claims.  After the hit début at the Royal Court, Toast was revived in March 2007 at the Hull Truck Theatre in Bean’s home town.  It was remounted again in August 2014 at the Park Theatre, London, by Snapdragon Productions, which subsequently went on tour in the U.K. from February to April 2016 before coming to New York City as part of the 59E59 Theaters’ Brits Off-Broadway 2016 series from 20 April to 22 May.  (A brief profile of the 59E59 Theaters appears in my report on Summer Shorts 2015, posted on 12 August 2015.)  The production opened in Theater A on 1 May and my friend Diana and I caught it on Saturday evening, 7 May. 

In April 2004, Brits Off Broadway débuted at the 59E59 Theater under the leadership of Elysabeth Kleinhans, the theaters’ artistic director, and Scottish-born executive producer Peter Tear; this season marks the annual tradition’s twelfth year of bringing provocative British theater to the U.S.  Along with 59E59’s main offerings, the 5A Season, Brits Off Broadway is one of the three main series presented by the Off Broadway facility.  The other two are Summer Shorts (on which I reported in the post referenced above) and East to Edinburgh (see my report on Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies, 17 August 2015), both annual occurrences.  Brits Off Broadway is a festival of new works from British writers, performers, and companies, presenting between six and 12 productions in all three of 59E59’s houses during the months of April, May, and June. 

Brits Off Broadway draws presentations from across the British Isles, including the less-represented Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  While there are shows from the National Theatre, the Bristol Old Vic, and the Leicester Haymarket Theatre, many are from small companies, from emerging and established talents alike.  “We’re bringing the stuff that would never, could never be seen on Broadway—small-scaled shows, one-person shows that deserve to find a wider audience but aren’t appropriate for commercial theaters uptown or downtown," explained Kleinhans.  59E59 scouts regularly visit Britain to select the best of British theater.  For theatergoers wary of festivals as “grab bags full of unknown, untested work,” the New York Times’ Christopher Isherwood assures them, “For Brits Off Broadway, Mr. Tear and Ms. Kleinhans have already done the hard work.  They’ve fixed the odds for you.”  In 2006, Isherwood dubbed the third festival “a highlight of the theatrical year in New York.”  

In addition to this season’s presentation of Bean’s first major work, Brits Off Broadway has offered productions of plays by such writers as Alan Ayckbourn, John Osborne, Peter Nichols, Steven Berkoff, Ian Kelly, Gary Owen from Wales, Northern Ireland’s Richard Dormer, and Scottish writer Gregory Burke; among the Brits Off Broadway productions have been numerous U.S. premières.  Casts have included such performers as two-time Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn, Ewen Bremner, and Celia Imrie. 

Toast is set in the dirty, drab canteen (break room) of a Hull bread factory in 1975, where the workers spend their off-time.  The cast is made up of a crew of working-class men, including former trawlermen from when Hull was a busy fishing port, whose jobs are in jeopardy because the company has upgraded a newer plant over an hour’s drive away.  The owners have been neglecting the Hull bakery, which is constantly breaking down, and once it can no longer sustain its usefulness, it’ll be closed down.  (The workers don’t only have their livelihoods to worry about if the plant closes: for most of them, the factory’s what fills their days.  As one of them says, if they weren’t at work, they’d just be idle.)  Meanwhile, the workers are left alone in the bakery on a Sunday shift, as no management personnel come to the plant; as one of the workers puts it, the Hull factory’s a goldmine for the owners: “They don’t have to manage it, maintain it, or invest in it.”

The action begins as the workers assemble at the start of one Sunday-night shift.  The boss, Mr. Beckett (never seen, but the subject of shop talk and often on the other end of the occasional phone conversation), tells the shift foreman that an order went wrong earlier so the late shift will have to work until 4 a.m. baking 3,000 extra loaves of bread.  Reactions are mixed, but the men realize that the order must be filled.  As a clock above the entrance marks the time, the six bread-makers (soon joined by a seventh, the “spare wank,” whose presence as a relief worker is mandated by labor contract when a shift goes to 12 hours) come and go, either for their “half-hours” (meal break) or their “smokes” (10- or 15-minute tea breaks).  We get to know the men as they banter with one another.  (If you’re wondering where I got all that jargon and the translations, the theater kindly provides a glossary, necessary for both the work slang and the Yorkshire dialect they all speak.)

Blakey (Steve Nicolson) is the “chargehand,” the shift foreman (though he isn’t “management”), for which he’s paid a whole 10 pence more an hour than his co-workers.  Blakey must watch his back, though, because shop steward Colin (Will Barton—who vaguely resembles Walter Matthau when he played heavies) is brown-nosing Mr. Beckett.  (Is he named so resonantly because all the men are waiting for their own kind of Godot?  Is the factory canteen Bean’s industrial stand-in for a barren country road with its lone, leafless tree?)  Peter (Matt Sutton) hates his job at the bread plant but needs it badly and worries how he’ll be able to support his family if the plant closes.  Dezzie (Kieran Knowles), a former “deckie” on a fishing trawler (with disgusting stories to tell), has just moved to a new house—which has given his wife a sex drive that pleases him—and also delights Cecil (Simon Greenall) who loves to hear about it because “he isn’t getting any.”  (What else delights Cecil is goosing Peter from behind in a blitz attack.)  This leaves only the pitiable Nellie (Matthew Kelly) from the regular shift, a burnt-out shell of a man from working 80-hour weeks for 45 years (he started at the bakery when he was 14 and doesn’t expect to retire for another six years).  When the six shift-members have arrived, the “temp,” Lance (John Wark), who claims to be a mature student in social history but turns out to be very different from the articulate and well read fellow we meet at his arrival, shows up as the spare wank.

Small crises occur throughout the night—Nellie, the “mixer” (the guy who makes the dough), manages to lose his undershirt somehow and the workers have to find it lest it wind up in someone’s loaf of bread the next day—until shortly before quitting time a serious mishap takes place, threatening a shut-down of the oven.  If that occurs, it’d take eight hours for the oven to cool and another five for it to reheat.  The men’s jobs completely depend on avoiding that.  On their own, and not wanting to report the problem to Mr. Beckett until they’ve tried to fix it—even at the risk of their own lives—the seven bakery workers scramble to set things right before the shift ends.

In the course of two hours (including an intermission), Toast depicts (if you’ll pardon the pun) a slice of factory life more than a beginning-middle-and-end narrative.  The milieu’s a hermetically sealed environment, with its own customs and practices and its own language, some of it Yorkshire slang (sarnies for sandwiches, tatties for potatoes) and some of it bakery-worker jargon (spare wank, half-hour, smoke, chargehand, mixer).  It’s also a character study of sorts, except the “character” is a team, six long-time co-workers and one newcomer.  Toast shows us individuals engaging in one very specific society. 

Toast was a disappointment, however.  Not only was the New York Times review of the current production positive, but so were all the notices I looked up for various London stagings between 1999 and 2014, but the play doesn’t live up to the hype.  The acting and directing, however, are excellent (although the thick Yorkshire dialect is hard to follow).  It’s a Naturalistic play (with a hint of Pinterism), but it’s also a snapshot of one shift at a bread factory so there’s not really a plot or a theme—or a conclusion.  The shift ends, so the play just stops.  I haven’t seen any of Bean’s other work (including One Man), so I don’t know if his writing is usually this faux-documentary style—I presume his adaptations more or less follow the plots of the original sources, but I can’t guess about the others.  

I can’t argue with the truthfulness of Bean’s depiction of this world—in fact, my impression is that it’s very accurate, and certainly the performances ring true—but the play lacks dramatic impact beyond a few emotional and psychological highs that come and go without leaving much behind.  Not only do the characters generally shrug off all incidents during the shift, it’s pretty clear that there won’t be any repercussions the next day or anytime thereafter.  The only change this night, an accident really, is the introduction of Lance, who may or may not be unbalanced (he’s a patient at the De la Pole Hospital, a mental asylum), but all he manages to do is toss a few momentary surprises at a couple of the workers, unbeknownst to any of the others so there aren’t any ripples beyond the moment.  Lance doesn’t actually disrupt the night’s work, much less any of the men’s focus.  Only the prospect of the plant’s closing, throwing the men all out of work, hangs over the characters like Joe Btfsplk’s dark cloud—and it’s a rumor which may or may not happen and isn’t actually in the offing during the play, making it only a subliminal threat.

I said, though, that the Snapdragon production of Toast is excellent.  Eleanor Rhode, director of this revival from the 2014 Park Theatre presentation that went on tour around England, stages the 59E59 visit, produced in association with London’s Jagged Fence Theater, with sureness and clarity.  On James Turner’s shabby canteen set, strewn with months of tossed trash (watch the wastebasket as it overflows with used teabags) and flour, under harsh, overhead industrial lighting by Mike Robertson, Rhode creates a whole world inhabited by just six people (with the occasional temporary addition of an outsider).  We can spy bits of the rest of the baking plant through the canteen doors’ glass panels (also clouded with flour dust), but it’s a hazy, ambiguous “elsewhere” that mostly exists for us from the evocative noises contributed by sound designer Max Pappenheim; the only real place is the one room where life happens.  (For the most part, except for Lance, who wears his street clothes—a little neater and nattier than what the others arrive in—the men wear work clothes of well-used white trousers, shirts, and aprons and flour-covered workmen’s brogans.  The look was designed by Holly Rose Henshaw.) 

Even though it was difficult to follow all the Yorkshire-inflected dialogue (that’s the same region in which Downton Abbey is set, but the TV show, even among the downstairs folk, was created with a trans-Atlantic audience in mind; Bean made no concession for us monolingual Americans), believing the truthfulness of the bakery men is never in question.  (It became more effective not to struggle to catch and interpret each word or phrase but just to let the underlying intentions, nicely conveyed by the cast’s physicalizations, communicate to me.)   What these guys do and how they do it was as real for me as a cinéma verité, and the collective work among the actors, whether there are two men on stage or all seven, was actually thrilling see.  (When the six regular shift workers are alone, I had no doubt they knew each other intimately and over a long time.  Lance’s presence suitably makes the others a little hesitant.)  If the play’s composed as a picture of a certain moment in the life of the bakery, Rhode doesn’t impose a structure that Bean didn’t intend: the performance seems to unfold in its natural rhythm, just as a Sunday night shift would (if 12 hours could be compressed into two).  There are lulls, silences, and slow intervals, interrupted now and then by frenetic, high-energy interludes.  As an exercise in acting and directing, you couldn’t want a better example.

Within the ensemble, each character stands out in his own way.  Arguably the most salient is Nellie (actually Walter Nelson, but everyone call him Nellie even though he prefers Walter), compellingly played with lumbering, monosyllabic aloofness—he’s part of the shift, but he’s not one of the gang—by Matthew Kelly.  He’s the old man of the team—not so much because he’s older than everyone else (I’m not so sure he is), but because he’s worked in the plant forever, it seems, having given it his childhood, his youth, and now his middle age.  (One description of Kelly’s bakery worker that I like—because it’s both perceptive and apt—emphasized “his floury hair and doughy features resembling the bread he bakes.”)  One co-worker calculates that Nellie’s baked 220 million loaves in his time at the factory.  Nellie’s not so much a leader as the shift mascot.  Kelly, an Olivier Award–winner (for Lennie in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, 2004), plays Nellie with a mix of one part tiredness and one part resignation.  In fact, when Lance, in his first time revealing his strangeness, tells Nellie he foresees that the old mixer’s going to die tonight, Nellie’s nonplussed. 

John Wark’s Lance resembles a slimmer Josh Mostel (from the ’70s) or Wayne Knight (from the ’80s), but somewhat more troublesome.  He shifts from comically peculiar to mysterious and weird without passing through any intermediate stages—and it’s hard to tell, the first time he does his eerie bit, whether he’s some kind of other-worldly creature Bean invented to tip over the Naturalistic world he’d maintained up till then, or some kind of kook.  He pretty much kept me guessing, although on his second go I was fairly certain he was just unbalanced somehow, until Blakey supplied some missing facts.  It’s regrettable that Bean doesn’t make more use of this character, who, in the end, has little effect on the action.  Wark creates a stand-out figure in the insular world of Toast but never really gets to go anywhere with it.

The other characters on the shift, though each is delineated distinctly by both Bean’s script and the actors’ characterizations, really only exist in association with their shiftmates.  Steve Nicolson’s Blakey, who’s spent some time in jail, is hard and cheerless, with divided loyalties as the shift chargehand who’s responsible to Mr. Beckett and the company on one side and to the men of his shift who depend on him to maintain their livelihoods on the other.  As shop steward Colin, Will Barton is subtly two-faced, appearing to look out for his coworkers as fellow union men but eying Blakey’s job and the 10 p.-an-hour raise that goes with it.  Cecil is the jokester in the gang, and Simon Greenall plays him with a slight edge that made me wonder if his jokes and clowning aren’t just a might desperate, even cruel, to fill an essentially empty life.  (Cecil’s the character who says, “I’m either here or I’m fishing, and I don’t really like fishing.”)  Kieran Knowles’s former deckie Dezzie, the youngest on the team and a man with more strength than smarts (he can’t remember his new address or phone number), is focused on his new wife and new home—he’s thinking ahead to his half-hour when he plans to rush home for a few minutes with the wife—and keeps himself at a slight remove from his shiftmates.  Peter, as played by Matt Sutton, is the shift’s cynic and anti-establishmentarian who grouses about nearly everything—and is the butt of most of Cecil’s hijinks.  With long, stringy hair, he wears flared jeans (remember bellbottoms?) instead of the white work pants the other regulars wear, making him look a little like a hippie in this working-class enclave, almost as out of place as Lance.  He brings a deck of cards to work with him to pass the time on his breaks, but he’s also quick to anger and challenge Blakey to a fight. 

Show-Score, the website that tallies theater reviews, reported that 59E59’s Toast received 68% positive reviews (of 22 surveyed), 14% negative, and 18% mixed.  Overall, the site gave the production a score of 72.  (I recalculated the stats posted on the site because Show-Score included U.K. reviews of earlier presentations.  I counted only reviews of the New York performance.)  Among the highest scoring notices was Ben Brantley’s in the New York Times.  Brantley called Toast a “trenchant . . . comedy of the rhythms of a blue-collar workday” that’s “a shrewd and poignant study of how rote work defines those who perform it.”  The play, the Timesman observed, “isn’t easy to classify”: “It combines the frenzy of farce with the creeping incremental detail of kitchen-sink realism. And there’s always the sense of a desperate emptiness lurking beneath the rowdy humor.”  He reported that “as directed by Eleanor Rhode,” the play’s “acted by a vigorous cast.” In the end, Brantley declared, “Joking, teasing and roughhousing—like making bread in an assembly line—are all just diversions to keep people from thinking about the final nothingness that awaits them. . . .  That ‘Toast’ is shadowed by this awareness doesn’t keep it from being boisterously entertaining.”  In the Epoch Times, Barry Bassis called Toast “a comedy but with serious undertones” and a “winner from across the pond” that “has an air of authenticity.”  Bassis affirmed, “And the cast is superb.” 

In her brief paragraph on the production, Elisabeth Vincentelli warned in the New York Post, “Even if you loved ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ on Broadway . . .  you may want to think twice before checking out ‘Toast’” because “it’s a slog.”  “Nothing much happens,” Vincentelli complained, “and the elliptical dialogue is made even more impenetrable by the working-class northern English accents.”  The Post reviewer acknowledged, “Things marginally pick up in the second act—if you make it that far,” but then concluded, “Sadly, this loaf takes way too long to rise.”   Cautioning that Toast isn’t “for the gluten intolerant,” Alexis Soloski wrote in the U.S. edition of the Guardian, that the play’s “a flour-crusted portrait of a group of men working the weekend shift at a bread factory” that “resembles a social realist drama (with a few less successful gestures toward the preternatural).  Toast “also displays . . . mordant and sometimes cruel humor,” observed Soloski.  “The situation is somewhat formulaic and so is the plotting,” the Guardian review-writer noted, “but Bean manages something distinctive, too, giving each of the men a distinctive voice.”  Soloski characterized the production as “finely detailed,” but demurred slightly, adding, “perhaps too finely.  The scurf of flour that coats the break room had a way of creeping up the theater’s center aisle and the factory thrum of Max Pappenheim’s sound design confused at least one patron, who asked an usher to silence the noise.”  (That never happened the night I saw the play—but it suggests how Naturalistic the staging was.)  “The performances are playful and mostly un-showy,” continued the reviewer, “and the 70s dress and hairstyles, courtesy costume designer Holly Rose Henshaw, are a slightly repulsive treat.” 

In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” column, the reviewer noted that Bean “hymns the pleasures and the sorrows of hard work in this genial comedy.”  The notice concluded (with a good pun!), “Leavened with pungent slang and bawdy humor—the ensemble works together as smoothly as the best assembly line—the play conjures a bygone world of industrial work, as doomed to obsolescence as the bakers themselves.”  In Time Out New York, Sandy MacDonald dismissed Toast, saying that “it’s tough to drum up much interest in this 1999 throwback” as Bean “evidently learned a thing or two in the wake of this, his first play—like how to jump right into the action and not waste a good half-hour establishing character.”  MacDonald had complaints about the acting as well, asserting that “Kelly cartoonishly indicates Nellie’s fright and confusion rather than authentically embodying the emotions, so the effect comes at one remove” and that “Wark telegraphs Lance’s oddity so pointedly (abrupt tonal shifts, bugged eyes) that you’d have to be facing a clear and present threat to your livelihood not to notice that there’s something seriously amiss.”

David Finkle, Huffington Post’s “First Nighter,” putting Toast in a new subgenre he named “gang comedy-dramas,” linked Bean’s play with Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew at the Atlantic Theater Company (Sandy MacDonald made the same connection in TONY) in which “blue-collar workers gather at the rest-and-relaxation room and get caught up in their factory’s potentially shutting down.”  Toast is “a strong play for the season getting underway” and awarded “a championship bread loaf . . . to the seven character men who make up the cast” and affirmed that Bean “has the right cast, the right director in Eleanor Rhode and the right set designer in James Turner” to pull off his chronicle of “the slow death of the industrial economy in England.”  On Theater Online, Heather Violanti described the 59E59 production of Toast as “exquisite” due to “Rhode’s clear-eyed direction and the ensemble[‘]s sincere, never-indulgent performances” which “bring Bean’s prodigious work to brilliant, heartfelt life.”  The play’s focus is “on the hard realities of working class,” though “Bean wraps up the play’s conflicts a little too neatly.”  Nonetheless, “the richly drawn, empathetic characters and expertly observed sense of workplace dynamics keep the play compelling.”  The company creates “an effortless, finely observed sense of ensemble” by which “you believe these men have been working together for years.”  In conclusion, Violanti dubbed Toast “a not-to-be-missed production” and punned that it’s “perhaps the toast of this year’s Brits Off Broadway festival.”

Susan Hasho of Theater Pizzazz affirmed, “The pace of this play is slow and the payoff might seem subtle, except that this production affords a feast of notable character actors, in perfect ensemble, performing small, detailed moments beautifully full of life and significance.”  Toast “[s]lowly . . . reveals the idiosyncratic connections between the men and the hopeless strain they are under” as Bean “creates a microcosm in which we can see a world of despair” while “the humor in the play humanizes the plight in both stark and gentle ways.”  The TP reviewer asserts that “as an audience,” we “are gathered into this life by the pace and the intricacy of the characters and their relationships.”  On TheaterScene, Rachel Goddard thought that Bean “allows the audience” for Toast “to be the fly on the wall of a bread factory break room”  Toast “is full of humor with moments of intense drama,” asserted Goddard, “[w]ith ingenuously boorish and precisely written characters” portrayed by “a strong ensemble cast.”  Characterizing Rhode’s direction as “brilliant,” TheaterScene’s reviewer felt, “Overall the performances were impressive and gave a slightly stagnant plot, life and motion.”

Asya Danilova of the blog OnStage felt that the audience of Toast “truly feels as though they are traveling in space and time” to the time and place of the play’s setting.  But “Toast is often unpredictable,” warned the reviewer. The canteen set, wrote Danilova, “is meticulously buil[t] and painfully realistic” and Pappenheim’s soundscape “is as subtle as it is scrupulous.”  The “brilliant cast . . . delivers some warm and gentle comedy,” though Danilova refused to call the play either a comedy or a “workplace drama.”  She didn’t put a label on Toast, but described it “as a tapestry of charismatic bread factory workers dealing with the crisis and enjoy it this way.”  The OnStage blogger summed up with: “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.”  On Broadway World, Marina Kennedy described Toast as “a humorous, yet intensely realistic depiction of factory life” through which Bean was able “to capture his subject perfectly.”  The production’s “stellar cast” delivers “a collective performance that is absolutely compelling” which, Kennedy thought, makes “an entertaining and appealing show that brings a real sense of humanity to the stage.” 

Stage Buddy’s Tania Fisher declared, “If you’re a fan of British theater and want to enjoy some fine acting, then you may want to help yourself to a slice of Toast.”  Fisher called Toast a “quirky play” that “tells the amusing story of an English bread factory in 1975” and generates “a strong sense of ensemble among the all-male cast” who “portray fully-realized characters with great skill and talent”; designer Turner’s set “reaches new heights in its impeccable attention to detail.”  Though our Stage Buddy found the first act “rather slow paced,” she reported that act two was “faster paced.”  Troubles with the Yorkshire accent and “the British sense of humor” aside, Fisher concluded that “it is easy to warm to every character in this offbeat story.”  CurtainUp’s review-writer Charles Wright characterized Toast as “a slice-of-life comedy about hardships on the bottom rung of the industrial ladder” whose “seven actors, under director Eleanor Rhode, are giving performances as balanced and precise as a top-flight chamber-music ensemble.”  Toast’s “physical world,” as envisioned by Turner and Robertson, “is sunless and grime-encrusted, with a dusting of flour” and “just right,” asserted Wright, “and entirely believable.” 

[What you don’t get from my review survey above—because I didn’t quote all the attempts at humor—are the myriad puns on bread and baking that nearly every reviewer slipped into his or her notice.  (I did it, too, a little, but I yield the field to the many other writers who outstripped my poor efforts.)  Some plays just seem to lend themselves to that sort of writing—just as Something Rotten!, on which I just reported (14 May), called the review-writers to come up with musical-related and Shakespeare-oriented quips—and a play about baking bread is just too much of a temptation to resist.  Some puns were better than others, of course.  I guess some writers just rose to the occasion and others simply fell flat.  (Sorry.  Couldn’t help myself)]

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