Since its opening in May 2013, the Park Theatre has garnered a reputation for high quality, affordable theatre, with new works, rediscovered theatrical gems and a host of big names and emerging artists. The current production of Toast is no exception: the first major play from hit writer Richard Bean is brought to a new audience with dynamic direction and a talented cast.
Bean’s rather unusual script, loosely based on his own experiences, follows seven workers over the course of their shift in a bread factory – while the action takes place in their breaks, the throbbing of machinery, the heat of the ovens and the churning of the mixers are never far away. The ensemble does a great job of bringing out the hilarious comedy of the piece, but there are also poignant turns that take you by surprise.
Matthew Kelly (as Walter) in particular is adept at creating this blend of emotions: like the tragic clown, he makes us laugh even with a monosyllable or roll of the eyes, but he also becomes a mournful and pitiable figure, turning a role with little dialogue into a nuanced and intelligent central performance that portrays the underlying fears in the mind of an ageing worker. As Lance, John Wark keeps us guessing with his mixture of comic and eerie acting, just pulling it back in time when the performance threatens to become hammy. However, I can’t help but feel that the script sells him short by leaving his character a little underdeveloped, when it has so much potential.
Elsewhere there is great individual work from Finlay Robertson (Dezzie), Simon Greenall (Cecil) and Matt Sutton (Peter), but it is when all three come together with sharply-observed banter and bickering that the exuberant comedy of the piece overflows – Greenall in particular has the audience in stitches on more than one occasion. Eleanor Rhode’s direction expertly creates the joyous simplicity of their working relationship while keeping the worries of unemployment simmering underneath, while the intimate space of the Park 200 draws us into the group.
After an excellent first half, the production does seem to waver moving into the second act; as comedy gives way to concern, the energy becomes a little flatter and the apparent danger of their actions never generates any real fear or doubt that things will turn out for the better. Perhaps it is a sign that is an early work from Bean, but at times the play doesn’t seem to know where it’s heading after its strong beginning. While there is both humour and gravity present, these contrasts could be blended more smoothly across the production, as is achieved so wonderfully by Kelly; the lines between light and shade are drawn a little too harshly.
However, overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable two hours of theatre that takes us back to the roots of Bean’s work and makes this eccentric dark comedy feel fresh and lively.
Toast is playing at the Park Theatre until 21 September. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website.