It’s always interesting seeing first time work by playwrights who later go on to make a big splash. Long before Richard Bean became the first playwright to win two Best Play awards at the Evening Standard awards, Toast played at the Royal Court upstairs theatre in 1999.
Set in a Hull bread making factory (Bean has direct experience having worked in one for a year before going to university) it’s a play that in this Snapdragon production; admittedly dragged from a studio to a proscenium arch which does it no favours; falls a little flat, the jokes aren’t funny enough, the acting sketched rather than finely defined. It is hard on a first viewing to know whether it’s the play or the production that doesn’t quite ring true. Whichever way you look at it there is a muted feel around Bath Theatre Royal.
Bean’s play harks back to the work plays of David Storey and Arnold Wesker, setting the action on a Sunday night shift at the factory in 1975 as the workers grumble, joke and gossip their way through the night. It’s an old-fashioned piece of writing in many ways, the first act introducing us to the characters and the relationships between the men and in the second ramping up the plot as the machine breaks down and the men are forced into a dangerous task to get it up and running again. Towards the end of the first
Towards the end of the first act, it begins to appear as the play is going down a different road of the supernatural and apocalyptic but this interesting juncture is then ceremoniously dropped and it meanders on as a result.
Director Eleanor Rhode’s production appears to be missing a beat, the timing a little off, the actors not jumping on their cues quickly enough. Bean does create well-rounded characters and by the end, you feel as though you have done a shift with them, it is rare to see a set of working class men on the stage, the kind of guys you see in your local.
A muted evening is brightened considerably by Matthew Kelly who gives yet another top notch performance to add to his increasingly glittering theatrical CV. His Walter ‘Nellie’ Nelson is a battered warhorse of the factory, battered and bruised after 40 years of service and terrified of losing his livelihood as the factory plans to move to Bradford.
Over recent years, Kelly’s held his own alongside actors of the ilk of Ian McKellen and Henry Goodman. Here it feels like his show, he dominates when he is on and the energy noticeably saps when he is gone. There are interesting turns by Simon Greenall and John Wark as the joker in the pack and a mature student with multiple layers but it’s Kelly’s show. He’s almost worth the ticket price alone but, ultimately, it’s one for Bean devotees only.
Runs until 12 March 2016 | Image: Oliver King