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Open: 04/23/16- Close: 05/22/16 TOAST
Reviewed for By: Heather Violanti

Toast – the first stage play by Richard Bean, who went on to write the Oliver-Award winning comedy One Man, Two Guvnors – receives its U.S. debut in an exquisite production directed by Eleanor Rhode, now playing at Theater A at 59E59 Theaters as part of Brits Off-Broadway.  Rhode’s clear-eyed direction and the ensembles sincere, never-indulgent performances bring Bean’s prodigious work to brilliant, heartfelt life.   

Toast is loosely based on Bean’s teenage experiences working in a bread factory in Hull, a city in northeast England whose economy fell into severe decline after World War II.   The play is set in 1975 – around the time Bean actually worked in factory – and captures a country on the brink of sweeping economic and social change.  In the play, set four years before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and changed Britain’s economy forever, industrial unions are still powerful and strikes are common, but workers begin to question both factory and union leaders who may not be all they appear.  On the surface, strict regulations seem to protect the staff, but they end up working 80 hours a week for low pay in hazardous conditions – a colleague, for example, lost an arm in a machine.   Jobs are few and far between, but for the oldest of employees, like dough mixer Walter, who started working for the factory at age 14, the job had been for life – but that security did not necessarily mean an easy or happy life. 

The play’s focus on the hard realities of working class life recall the plays of Arnold Wesker, while the unexpected flashes of zany humor and slapstick hint at the comic mastermind Bean would become.  Every character is struggling just to get by, but this doesn’t stop them from laughing at the absurd grimness of their situation.  If anything, Bean wraps up the play’s conflicts a little too neatly, but the richly drawn, empathetic characters and expertly observed sense of workplace dynamics keep the play compelling.    

The cast have recently completed a U.K. tour, and the months spent performing together show in an effortless, finely observed sense of ensemble.  You believe these men have been working together for years. This is a play where silences speak louder than words, particularly in the wordless exchanges between various characters and Walter, nicknamed Nellie, whose facial expressions reveal more than his pained one-word sentences.  Matthew Kelly is superb as Walter, portraying a man at once proud and worn down by decades of hard physical labor, who’s so absorbed by his work he can’t think about anything else, not even during break.  Steve Nicolson captures the quiet authority of Blakey, the gruff,  de facto floor manager with a not-so-hidden dark past, while Simon Greenall finds the self-doubt beneath the bluster of World War II-vet Cecil’s mischievous glee.  Will Barton makes dishonest union rep Colin more than a cardboard villain, while John Wark brings a fish-out-of-water eccentricity to Lance, the newbie who might not who he says he is.  Kieran Knowles gives unobservant but kind-hearted Dezzie a lusty joy for life, while Matt Sutton captures young Peter’s desperate striving for something better. 

Set designer James Turner succinctly portrays the barrenness of the factory break room – walls stained with flour, a metal rubbish bin overflowing with used tea bags and sandwich papers – while sound designer Max Pappenheim has created an ominous, ever-present hum for the baking and processing machinery.  Holly Rose Henshaw’s period perfect costumes – from Peter’s flared jeans to Walter’s ancient, flour-strewn clothes and laceless boots – help complete the play’s sense of time and place. 

In all, Toast is a not-to-be-missed production of an unknown play by an exciting dramatic voice – perhaps the toast of this year’s Brits Off Broadway festival. 

59E59 Theaters : 59 East 59th Street