REVIEW: Toast | BSSTC & The Blue Room Theatre

Playwright Liz Newell’s Toast was the toast of the season at The Blue Room in 2017, garnering all manner of accolades, nominations and awards. It resonated with audiences who found its exploration of grief, home, and family relatable, natural and realistic.

Toast by Liz Newell
The Studio Underground of the STCWA

It is a very rare thing indeed for an independent theatre work to go from the small black boxes of The Blue Room Theatre to the big black box of the Studio Underground, and such a rarity has been made even more so by ‘these unprecedented times’ in the arts. Playwright Liz Newell’s Toast was the toast of the season at The Blue Room in 2017, garnering all manner of accolades, nominations and awards. It resonated with audiences who found its exploration of grief, home, and family relatable, natural and realistic. It’s no wonder, then, that BSSTC brings Toast, with most of its original team, to Boorloo audiences again in 2022.

It’s an apt time for a conversation about grief and all the potential for catharsis that lies within Newell’s script. Collectively, we’ve been through a lot in the last two-going-on-three years of loss, disruption, and unwanted and unforeseen change. Even if we haven’t lost family members, we might have lost our livelihoods, or our sense of security and optimism, and this is reason enough to look for comfort in a play like Toast.

Sam Nerida and Alison van Reeken. Image: Birdhouse Media

Toast explores the perspectives and shared story of three sisters who come together after the sudden loss of their mother; they each face life’s challenges differently, and each bears scars both hidden and obvious to others. Sam Nerida stepped last minute into the role of the youngest sister Sydney, after the originator, Anna Lindstedt, broke her leg and was unable to perform. Amy Mathews reprised her role as middle sister Alex, as did Alison van Reeken as eldest sister Candice. Supporting the trio was Teresa Jakovich, who stepped in to replace Sam Nerida as Gwen, the real estate agent helping the sisters sell their childhood home.

Although the sudden changes must have shaken the cast and crew considerably, enough time had apparently passed in the second week of its run for everyone to have well and truly settled into their new roles and dynamics, much to the credit of the entire team, and especially to Nerida and Jakovich who were fully off book on the night of the review.

There are some unique challenges that The Studio Underground stage can present for designers and directors; they must somehow deal with the vast width of the stage space without a proscenium to impose a frame and somehow make sure to include the patrons sitting at either end of the wide stadium seating. Often, designers choose to build their own proscenium to contain the action, which Sally Phipps has done here by creating a kind of elongated white frame box, like a polaroid shot in landscape. While this does effectively reduce the playing area to something more manageable and somewhat closer to the scale of the original production, the length and shallowness of the inset stage forces the action into basically a single acting plane from end to end.

Alison van Reeken, Teresa Jakovich, and Amy Mathews. Image: Birdhouse Media

This single long plane makes it difficult for the actors to move and interact in dynamic ways, and the result is often two performers facing each other off from one end of the stage to the other. It’s an unfortunate side effect that isn’t helped in this instance by the placement of cardboard packing boxes in the very middle of that plane. The actor’s lower legs and feet might only be of minor consequence in a character’s physicality, but still, I’d like to see them.

The action takes place in a very well-organised garage, and the cast and crew carefully and quietly remove and rearrange items during scene changes so that we get a sense of the house being packed up as the show progresses. This undercuts the solemnity of a number of very moving monologues that are delivered under single spotlights to the front of the inset stage. Perhaps the idea of packing away the house could have been better expressed in less literal ways to ensure that we are fully present with the performers as they open their souls to us.

Alison van Reeken. Image: Birdhouse Media

There are some very moving scenes and the audience was completely absorbed in the highs and lows of these sisters, many remarking to each other after the curtain about how relatable the show was. The dialogue-heavy script offers moments that shine, where the women say what needs to be said without artifice or pretense. There are some heated exchanges that escalate a little too quickly, and where characters behave a little too uncharacteristically, but then again, sometimes life does. Sometimes we do.

Having not seen the original production at The Blue Room, I do get a sense of how affecting it would have been in the intimate confines of those theatre spaces (not sure if it was the main stage or the studio); much of that intimacy simply is embedded in Newell’s writing, and it can’t help but be transported to bigger spaces and bigger audiences. With gifted interpreters like Mathews and Van Reeken to imbue Newell’s script with authenticity and life, we don’t need much more than their voices, their physicality, and their expressiveness to take us right to the heart of this home and this family.