This Edinburgh Fringe transfer from production company Patch of Blue is a love story about the relationship between two childhood sweethearts: Scott and Jen. Director Alex Howarth has the actors energetically tagging in and out, taking turns to play either Scott (Joshua Garwood, Hugh Roberts, Matthew Marrs) or Jen (Tanita Gold, Danielle Williams, Alexandra Simonet). In 65 minutes we see the progression of their relationship at warp speed. From their first kiss to what feels like every moment in between, chronology is shattered and scattered across the stage for all to see.
Relationships are fascinating things, and have justly been the central focus of a number of London plays over the past year. Look no further than The Pride at Trafalgar Studios, and both The Pass and The Mistress Contract at the Royal Court as a handful of successful examples. Beans on Toast also certainly has its roots in David Nicholls’s 2009 phenomenon of a novel, One Day. What all these examples have in common is that they focus on quality rather than quantity. Moments, often commonplace, are devised and selected based on their ability to show a great deal about the relationship in the space of a peephole. This is where Beans on Toast is at fault.
There certainly is brilliant work – writing, direction, acting all – in the large number of scenes here. Scenes at the zoo, with some uncanny ape impressions, on MSN, and over a conversation about necessities in the event of a zombie apocalypse showed precise characterisation and comic touch. I was also rightly charmed by the a cappella end credits. What nicer way to end the first sunny evening of the year?
But the play does need an impartial editor to take a large pair of scissors to it. The focus on quantity results in the portrait of a relationship that is bloated with idiosyncrasy. This actually turns it into a romantic comedy stereotype: she slips drugs into his brownies; she gives him a bracelet; they fondle each other at the back of a cinema; they decide to get married far too young. Too many tropes that don’t tell you enough about what makes their relationship unique.
It wasn’t until afterwards that I the found out the actors are all Mountview graduates. Thankfully this didn’t shape my impressions of the show at the time, but did help me make a bit more sense of what I’d seen. Too often the production is trying more to be a showcase for the actors than a play. The even-handed approach to casting allows each of the actors to demonstrate each of their particular artistic strengths. That is no matter how poorly they fit into the narrative. Case and point: Scott at one point pulls on some tap shoes for all of ten seconds, and bite my bum if they don’t pull out a cup song halfway through. Effort applied in these areas has sacrificed attention to detail. Scott, we hear a couple of times, has a stutter. Jen even buys a ticket to an expensive course to help treat it. But it doesn’t actually appear to affect him at any point in the play bar his final course-completing speech.
This focus on quantity and variety has also sacrificed narrative cohesion. Scenes are spliced together at random in order to show the flighty nature of memory. Sometimes this works brilliantly, charging us bluntly from joy and laughter into stiff sincerity with a jolt – and it works. But if you roll the dice enough, you’re eventually going to hit a double. Mostly you find yourself asking ‘how did we get here?’. It makes you wonder whether the patchwork quilt chronology is there to hide bad writing.
This is not a one star show. I wasn’t offended watching it, but I was put out by what felt like squandered opportunity. The production won the IdeasTap Edinburgh Previews Award, and has been justly rewarded for the potential on display. But the eight months since should have been spent indulging in some hard truths from impartial sources, turning a fringe fancy into a properly professional show.
Beans on Toast plays at New Wimbledon Studio until 7 Apr. For tickets and more information, see the New Wimbledon Studio website.