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Toast (Rose Theatre Kingston)

Matthew Kelly and Simon Greenall star in Richard Bean's drama set in a bread factory

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Like so many UK industries in the 1970s, bread making was on the verge of ruin - at least from the point of view of its skilled workforce who were soon to be ousted from local bakeries in favour of huge regional production lines.

Richard Bean's play, first performed in 1999, draws on his own 12-month stint as a worker in a Hull bakery, working alongside men who'd already lost one livelihood as fishermen with no fish left to catch, and now faced losing another.

Today their job titles sound entirely obsolete: tin change and table man - and who'd want to admit to being the factory's 'spare wank'?

Filthy and funny, this seven-man show is ensemble playing at its best, directed by Eleanor Rhode. Toast is entirely uncompromising, and its swearing, crude sexual references and smoking meant an early exit for several members of the audience at the Rose theatre in Kingston.

However it's also carefully observed, with Matthew Kelly touching and engaging as Nellie, the simple, shuffling, put-upon worker who's been in the bakery for 45 years and still can't get through the day without losing his vest in a vat of dough.

Simon Greenall's jittery joker Cecil is the standout comedy performance, with Steve Nicolson offering solid support as chargehand Blakey, who gives his own balls a reassuring squeeze every time there's business to be tackled.

John Wark has a hesitant, other-worldly quality as 'student' Lance, whose scarred wrists suggest he may be on day-release from an institution other than a college.

But Toast itself is on a very slow burn in the first half. With some scenes played out in the real-time silence of a smoking break, the longeurs are stretched to breaking point.

Things pick up in the second half, with a major bakery breakdown to deal with. The men are so desperate to maintain their livelihoods - inextricably linked to their status and identities - that they're even prepared to crawl into a hot industrial oven to keep the place going.

The costume design by Holly Henshaw captures the 1970s cheesecloth shirt and denim combo very deftly, and James Turner's set design is outstanding, down to the pile of used teabags spilling from the overflowing bin. Lighting designer Mike Robertson has great fun with the flashing lights of the monstrous bakery ovens, while sound designer Max Pappenheim creates a convincing background factory hum, heard from within the confines of the staff rest-room.

Working in the bakery all those years ago stood Richard Bean in very good stead - he gained enough material from his production-line chats to write this play and three others. But while Toast offers a poignant snapshot of a lost past, it's not quite strong enough to deliver real bite.

Toast runs at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 13 February.