A great slice of life in the bread factory - Toast at Cambridge Arts Theatre


Toast - Credit: Archant

Toast by Richard Bean at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday, April 2.

Richard Bean’s excellent play, Toast was to have been called Wonderloaf, until the makers of the famous white sliced put in a legal challenge.

You can understand why.

The bread factory in the play, based on the place in Hull where Bean spent a year working as a teenager, is a Hull hell-hole.

One of the workers describes it as easy money for the owners: “They don’t have to manage it, maintain it or invest in it.”

The ground down, Nelly, permanently covered in wholemeal mix, is almost a metaphor for that. He does 80 hours a week, he’s been there 45 years, since he was 14. Every part of him itches.

He’s oppressed at home too. For his holidays, his wife makes him pick potatoes in a farmer’s field. She gives him cheese sandwiches every night.

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This is a savagely funny play. There are seven men in the cast, Nelly’s workmates, a former trawler man who has just moved into a home with hot water, so he and his wife can both have baths, which makes bedtime more interesting, a shop steward, someone who secretly aspires to promotion, an old fella who’s not getting much at home and wants to know what to do about it.

Women think that all men talk about is football – but that’s only when the women are there. When the women are not listening, they talk about sex. Who gets it or who doesn’t. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be sex.

Anyone who has worked in a factory will see that it is well observed. This is the 1970s when there was actually a bread strike. It lacked impact. People just made their own. Sales of yeast rose.

Factory routine is all about your breaks, your half-hour, your fag break. But hanging over everything is this factory’s future. It’s overshadowed by a new one opening in Bradford.

“You don’t drive your old car when you’ve just bought a new one,” one of the characters says knowingly. Then crisis hits when a loaf tin jams up the burning oven and someone is going to have to crawl in to free it.

In many ways, unlike the oven, it’s a slow burner. You get the feel of desolation and dead-endness that it must be to work in a bread factory. You are there in that rest room. Bean says people tell stories to each other because otherwise the long, shift would never end.

But the audience was chuckling throughout. There are fine performances from all the cast. It is poignant, real and haunting.