Toast (Park Theatre)

Richard Bean’s debut play is revived by Eleanor Rhode at the Park Theatre

John Wark and Matthew Kelly
John Wark and Matthew Kelly
© Ben Broomfield

Bean’s on Toast in Finsbury Park: yummy! If any playwright’s time is "now," it’s Richard Bean‘s. This well scorched revival of his first play – premiered at the Royal Court in 1999 – coincides with the transfer of Great Britain from the National to the Haymarket, the ongoing tour of One Man, Two Guvnors, the opening of Pitcairn at Chichester for Out of Joint, and the build-up to his adaptation of Made in Dagenham as a musical for Rupert Goold.

Before becoming a playwright, Bean worked in a bread factory in his native Hull, trained as a social psychologist and cracked jokes as a stand-up comedian: Toast bristles with all this experience, set in the canteen of a Humberside bread and confectionery plant (the absentee boss, Beckett, is "shagging a girl on custards") where a mature student of economics and social history, Lance (John Wark), is on temporary assignment; or is he?

In many ways this is a classic debut play, but the usual "rite of passage" work element is subverted in new boy Lance’s ambiguous character and is unusual, too, in creating a major crisis – one of the ovens overheats when a baking tin gets jammed – that is surprisingly resolved after two of the staff, togged out in sack-cloth and grubby linen, enter the cauldron instead of escaping the heat of the kitchen.

All of Bean’s characters are sharply and affectionately observed, and beautifully played in Eleanor Rhode‘s production for Snapdragon. There’s Steve Nicolson‘s ex-con Blakey, firing used tea-bags into the bin with deadly accuracy; tattooed trawler man Dezzie (Finlay Robertson) keen to bunk off to bed with his girlfriend between shifts; and a goolie-grabbing old salt, Cecil, whom Simon Greenall plays like a third-rate Northern comic in search of a booking.

There’s a sense in which these men have ended up here by accident, and from other lives, while Will Barton‘s intense shop steward and Matt Sutton‘s fiery, impatient Peter are more directly engaged with the background of strikes – the year is 1975 – and threats of closure. And stuck in the middle is Matthew Kelly‘s wonderful, docile, rubbery-featured portrait of a sad old lifer, glumly contemplating his cheese sarnies, whose idea of the other side of the world is Grimsby.

The set-up in designer James Turner‘s grimy canteen with an upper gantry leading off to the ovens is an emergency order that has turned a late shift into an all-nighter, with panic orders coming in over the phone. Various spanners in the works include a mini-rebellion, the arrival of less-than-trusty Lance, and industrial chaos caused by too much yeast in the wholemeal; there’s an awful lot of loafing going on.