The hardest thing for a first-time playwright is to come up with an original idea, thought and sentence. So Richard Bean put pen to paper and wrote about his time working in a Hull bread plant.
The result was Toast, a brilliantly conceived comedy about the night shift at the fictitious Rosedale Street Bakehouse, with its characters taken straight off the production line and reimagined on stage.
One assumes that they were chuffed at seeing themselves in a play (well, no-one sued the dramatist although a certain bread company did threaten when the original title was suggested as Wonderloaf). And why not? Each player sympathetically drawn, likeable, engaging and down-to-earth.
A revival of Toast is now touring the UK and this week it is at the Oxford Playhouse with a cast led by Matthew Kelly.
I don’t suppose anyone ever went on Stars In Your Eyes and said: “Tonight Matthew I’m going to be a Homepride Flourman” but Kelly’s decision to change career, from TV game show host to actor, has been an undoubted success.
Here he plays Nellie. Actually, he inhabits Nellie. Nellie doesn’t say or do much other than scratch his scabby dermatitis as he mixes batches of dough (and you thought the flakes on your morning sliced was wholemeal?). His mind seems to have turned as claggy as his mix in the 45 years he’s spent at the plant.
It’s hard to imagine him as a young man, sweeping a girl from the plant’s cake line, off her feet. Nowadays the girl, who became the wife, rations him to three fags a day and a processed cheese sarnie for lunch. Nellie is so worn down from a lifetime making dough that he loses his vest in the mix and isn’t overly concerned.
He panics if he has to speak more than three words at a time. Kelly’s lugubrious face works tirelessly to create a man who is happy just sitting..and saying nothing at all. The audience is asked to watch, and wait, and eventually Nellie’s brain clicks into gear. It’s wonderful to see. Kelly’s timing is immaculate.
Toast is set in the 1970s and the political unrest of the time subtly permeates the production. The bakery is knackered though management’s lack of investment and the seven men clocking on for the Sunday night-shift know that, at any opportunity, their boss will issue P45s and close the place down.
Like many towns, you get the feeling that Hull, or at least this corner of it, relies on the plant for jobs. The last thing the men need is to find themselves, literally, on the breadline.
Dezzie (Kieran Knowles) left behind the trawlers to move into a new house with his wife. God knows where they were living before, but now he gets excited at having hot water on tap, so to speak. Cleanliness is doing wonders for his sex life and he seems forever on a promise.
Old Cecil wished he had the same but the nearest he gets to sex is goosing a fellow baker. What made it worse, intentionally or not, was that Simon Greenall’s unsettling performance sounded (and behaved) like Jimmy Savile.
The first act spends its time introducing the characters and setting up the story with, I felt, only a few laugh-out-loud moments. But it isn’t really that sort of comedy. There’s not hilarity around every corner but Bean crafted a well-observed, character-led, sitcom that creates laughs when you’d least expect it.
The appearance of “student” trainee, Lance, is a bit of a curveball. He’s not their usual low calibre trainee and he goes on to put the fear of god into the normally impassive and taciturn Nellie.
John Wark is disarming as the well-spoken and enigmatic Lance. There’s an air of mystery about the character, with his bright red rugby shirt, green cords and yellow socks, a shock of dark curly hair, and the scars of a suicide attempt on each wrist. He spins a good yarn in all earnestness before giving a radiant smile. Just who is he? And can you believe what he says?
The story builds almost imperceptibly to a tense finish when a bread tin gets stuck in one of the furnace-like ovens and the men, who appear to work alone and unmanaged at nights, take a unilateral decision to go in and free it. Surely a suicide mission but better than a busted oven, the dole and a retirement pretending to enjoy fishing.
The performances are charming. Steve Nicolson’s Blakey, the chargehand with musical aspirations, is quietly authoritative while Kieran Knowles’ rampant Dezzie is constantly fired with enthusiasm (though not necessarily for the job).
The lumbering Nellie, who flicks T bags, coughs up his nicotine, and (somewhere in his brain) fears for his future, is a dramatist’s dream character. You couldn’t make him up (and Richard Bean surely didn’t).
Bean went on to produce the acclaimed One Man Two Guvnors which delivered a lot more laughs through an exhaustive physical turn by its leading man. But Toast, with its detailed and finely comic character studies, remains a remarkable opening gambit for a burgeoning playwright.
Toast plays at Oxford Playhouse until tomorrow.
2016 Tour dates
February 22-27, Malvern Theatres February 29-March 5, Theatre Royal Norwich March 7-12, Theatre Royal Bath March 14-19, Connaught Theatre, Worthing March 21-26, Yvonne Arnauld Theatre, Guildford March 28-April 2, Cambridge Arts Theatre April 4-9, Theatre Royal Nottingham.
Matthew Kelly gives a masterly performance as Nellie, veteran bread mixer and deep thinker, at the heart of Richard Bean’s quietly comic Toast.