Bringing Home the Bread

Six men who work in a bread factory call themselves “bread plant operatives,” a glamorous, James Bondian phrase to describe a life of working-class burden, in Richard Bean’s Toast. First staged in 1999 and now revived at 59E59 Theaters as part of Brits Off-Broadway, with Snapdragon Productions, Bean’s freshman play is littered with such comeuppances to the class divisions inherent in British society. Its main players are blue-collar breadwinners (and bread-makers) who live paycheck to paycheck; they are given to cursing creatively, and often, about their jobs, their wages and their “lasses.” Bread isn’t the only thing that’s baking in Toast; director Eleanor Rhode imbues nervous energy into a production that proves both raucously entertaining and moving. 

It’s the 1970s, and a side-burned Blakey (Steve Nicolson), the foreman at the Rosedale Street Bakehouse, is clocking in. In the canteen, he (obviously) makes himself a cup of tea, before grudgingly greeting Colin (Will Barton), a harrumphing, middle-aged man with strike wages to complain about. Three other players also enter: Peter (Matt Sutton), a talkative young man with an ambitious itch; Cecil (Simon Greenall), an ever-smiling, avuncular bread-maker and Dezzie (Kieran Knowles), a former ship’s deckhand with a new home, and incidentally, a loving wife who takes hot-water baths—a luxury in their lives. Lumbering through these life-threads is Nellie (Matthew Kelly), a bread mixer at the factory for 30 years and the type of man who works ceaselessly and unquestioningly till senescence overtakes him. 

At the behest of his (unseen, yet somehow still present) boss Mr. Beckett, Blakey takes a student called Lance (John Wark) under his wing. Immediately out of place in his tweed jacket and crisp, affable accent, Lance is an outsider in the blue-collar bubble of the bread factory. We, like Lance, slowly grow accustomed to the spirited slang of Northern English accents: “‘Kinell!” “Are you pulling my plonker?” He might as well be from another country, as the audience is, and still feel the same rift in social connection. The other workers immediately nickname him “Sir Lancelot.” But in due course, Lance begins to tease and pull at Toast’s existential strings; class conflict is negated in the face of wanting to live a meaningful life, it seems. 

All are worried, some violently so, that the factory’s central oven will break down and put them all out of work. When a tin inside the oven gets jammed, tempers flare and panic sets in. It’s indicative of the weight and salience these men afford their jobs. To say that Nellie’s work is his life seems a conflation of identities—his life’s work is baking bread. His legacy is baking bread. A threat to their labor, which shares so intimate a friendship with life for these characters, is tantamount to sacrilege. “The bakehouse is my church,” says Blakey, for there is no other arena of life that exists so dependably, and so religiously, as his work at the bread factory. 

Unsurprisingly, Bean’s particular brand of screwball satire, most famously shown in One Man, Two Guv’nors, is found only in shades here. Peter and Cecil carry on a balls-grabbing competition; Blakey gives his crotch a great deal of unconscious comic readjustment as well. Yet for all of Toast’s good humor, farce gives way to a darkly spiritual kitchen-sink drama.

Rhode’s trump card is Matthew Kelly’s devastatingly haunting portrayal of Nellie, the ever-laboring, broken yes-man. Arms varicose with dermatitis and lungs heaving with cigarette smoke, Nellie’s monosyllabic dialogue leaves plenty of room for an actor of Kelly’s ability to indulge in invention, and he does not disappoint. Even Kelly’s deadpan stares take on uncomfortable, survivalist meaning. Is his reticence keeping him sane as he mixes bread day in and day out, year after year? John Wark’s Lance is a chattering antithesis of sorts to Nellie’s silence, yet has the most trouble keeping his wits about him as the play proceeds. 

The fairly stifling vacuum of factory life, so apparent in the nervous, chaotic conversations of the characters, is almost nonexistent in the physical space that Toast occupies. Set designer James Turner has made the canteen a blinding white and pastel blue; stark white light bathes the canteen (Mike Robertson is the lighting designer) almost constantly. Swinging doors lead out towards the factory, while a Max Pappenheim’s constant soundtrack of grinding machinery plays behind each performance. Holly Rose Henshaw has provided appropriately understated clothes that affirm the greatest concern of the characters: their job. 

But spread on every open surface is a fine film of white flour. It sticks to the walls, on door handles and the forearms of the workers—it is the non-erasable costume that the characters wear, reminders of their station. Matt Sutton’s Peter hastily wipes every chair before sitting down on it, but it manages to stick to his bell-bottomed jeans all the same. 

Richard Bean’s Toast runs in the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues) through May 22. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday at 7 p.m. and at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $70. To purchase them, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org.  

 

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