Monday, 17 December 2018

Review: The empire strikes bap

WE’RE in the canteen of a mass production bakery. It’s grey with flimsy furniture and flour dust is everywhere.

Oxford Playhouse
Tuesday, February 16

WE’RE in the canteen of a mass production bakery. It’s grey with flimsy furniture and flour dust is everywhere.

Oh no, please, we’re not in for one of those earnest workers-hell pieces, are we? The sort of thing you might imagine coming from the old East German Culture Department?

No, we are not! Grey and sparse it may be, but Toast is a wonderfully colourful piece full of life, wit and drama. And I can say from personal experience that it is pinpoint accurate.

The cast may all be in dusty white and sweaty work gear, but that works all the better to show up the contrasting vitality of their characters.

Toast is Richard Bean’s first play and draws heavily on his year’s experience as a bakery worker in Hull in 1975. Hull is a dying town as the fishing industry shrinks and men who would otherwise never think of making bread turn up to what is effectively a factory.

There are no real baking skills, everything is mechanised and all they have to do is lift tins in and out of ovens. Men who have been working on trawlers or in industry are now doing this heartless, soulless work, so they make it liveable by creating their own dramas.

This is a seven-man ensemble piece with everyone having more or less equal time — although it’s Matthew Kelly’s name on the posters. His role is remarkable, requiring him to screw down his natural ebullient character to give us a man apparently devoid of ambition, awareness and possibly even thought. He appears to know three words: “aye”, “no” and “cheese”.

He is in stark contrast to those around him: Blakey, the super efficient charge hand with a criminal past; Colin, the conniving shop steward; Cecil, the playful and sex-obsessed older worker; Peter, the bright, angry and socially aware one; Dezzie, the effervescent ex-trawlerman; Lance, the student stand-in with a suicidal bent.

Throw that lot together and you have a recipe for lots of banter. Add a dramatic situation — the oven breaking down — and we have a wonderfully constructed play which ended too soon for me.

Sometimes playwrights don’t do their homework and try to make political points without knowing what they’re on about. Not here, absolutely not here!

This was what a Seventies bread factory was like: dull, repetitive, everyone turning up hating the idea of being there, working through the night putting in and taking out tins, being regularly burned by the ovens but always getting your 10-minute break in the hour.

Management went home at 5pm, the foremen and charge hands ran the show after that and did the real work and decision-making.

It’s all faithfully documented in this vibrant piece — but while I thank them for a terrific night’s drama, I’m not grateful for being taken back to my own bread factory summer in 1970. And I doubt many who’ve ever done it would be.

Until Saturday.

Review: Mike Rowbottom

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