Chorleywood is a harmless little town in Hertfordshire, within striking distance of Watford. I feel sorry for its hapless residents, because Chorleywood is also notorious as the name of the process used to make four fifths of the UK's bread -- tasteless, cheap and likely to upset your digestion. In the words of the real bread champion Andrew Whitley, 'The so-called Chorleywood Bread Process (CBP), invented in 1961, has turned out to be a culinary and digestive disaster.' Because it was the site of the research centre where the ultra-fast breadmaking technique was dreamed up, Chorleywood is now synonymous with the rubbish sliced stuff that has led to millions of people giving up bread altogether.
I thought about poor unfortunate Chorleywood last night as I enjoyed Richard Bean's play Toast, set in an industrial bread plant, not in Hertfordshire but in Hull. Like cheap sausages and value hamburgers, it's best not to inquire too closely how these plants turn out their products. One of the side effects of this excellent production may be to persuade the audience to switch to something more wholesome.
The play has seven male characters, six fulltime workers and one temporary 'student', and is set in the filthy canteen where they take their teabreaks. Hygiene is non-existent, and the surfaces are all coated in a mixture of grime and flour. Harsh strip lighting flickers overhead, and the black pay phone hanging on the wall and the jokes about Ted Heath being a 'poof' make it clear this is the early 1970s. There's an eighth character offstage, the unseen manager Beckett who is 'shagging that lass in custards, the one with no teeth'.
Bean's writing may lack some of the depth of Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen, but his dialogue is laugh-out-loud funny. This production at the Park Theatre s a revival of his breakthrough play, staged at the Royal Court 15 years ago. He's now replacing Alan Ayckbourn as the UK's most staged playwright, with One Man, Two Guvnors and Great Britain both becoming huge hits. He has also written the book for the musical Made In Dagenham, which will open shortly in the West End. Toast is based on personal experience, and every moment rings true. Watching it triggered vivid memories for me of a few weeks spent as a kitchen hand in a potato crisp factory between school and university in 1967.
The reason for my digression into the Chorleywood process is that good theatre, like good bread, should not be artificially hurried. With a cast of experienced character actors, this production has faultless timing and proves once again that, just like the air bubbles in bread, it is quite often the pauses in comedy that are the funniest. Eleanor Rhode's direction is excellent, far better than in her version of the Ben Travers farce Thark at the same venue. Matthew Kelly in particular is a joy to watch as the dough-splattered veteran Nellie, a man ground down by the relentless pressure of industrial work. He rolls his eyes with incomprehension, responds with leaden monosyllables when teased by his fellow worker and looks forward only to his next cigarette. His pauses and facial expressions are just wonderful. The rest of the cast are less well known than Kelly, but equally skilled at bringing their characters to life. There is sarcasm, aggression, a plethora of double meanings and some fabulous lines. Dezzie, the former deckhand on a trawler, has just moved into a new house with his girlfriend; the bathroom is going to be pistachio. 'I told her she could do it any colour she likes, as long as it's not green.'
The Sunday night shift starts calmly, but tension rises when they are suddenly ordered to make several thousand more loaves than usual. In act two it becomes clear that the bread plant's future, and all their jobs, are under threat, and when production grinds to a halt because of a tin jammed in the oven, conflict boils over. Bean deftly keeps up the tension until the final moments, leaving the outcome in doubt.
Steve Nicolson,Will Barton, Matt Sutton, Simon Greenall and FInlay Robertson are all very good as the five other workers, and I particularly liked John Wark as Lance, the casual student interloper. Rather than have the workers bully the visitor, Bean turns the situation round so that Lance becomes the bully, which gives the interplay of characters a very original twist.
This is a hugely enjoyable revival, which unfortunately only has a few days to run. I had a vision of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry appearing on stage to sign up the cast for The Great British Bake-Off. That would guarantee a few awards, though Nellie's tendency to lose his vest in the wholemeal mixture would probably lead to an early expulsion.