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Review: Toast

The end of the first revision week! And wow have I not done any revision. I wish I could say I’ve spent this time entirely in alcohol and debauchery like any self-respecting student should, but I’ve actually been almost constantly sleeping or half-asleep (in recovery from essays). But a lot of stuff has happened this week, such as the Cass Review being published, and Pride being cancelled, and the German Bundestag finally passing the Selbstbestimmungsgesetz, all of which I have all sorts of big complicated feelings about which I haven’t been awake enough to deal with. The result has been a descent into some of my worst vices – C-dramas and Magic: the Gathering – and also that I completely forgot I was supposed to be reviewing this play, or honestly that the theatre scene here existed at all. So after some of the most humiliating Facebook messages of my life (thanks so much to Charlotte Gruendling for being so nice about it and congratulations on producing this cool play and just everything with People You Know and god I’m embarrassed) this review is now happening a day later than planned, and I can never talk to anyone involved in People You Know again. 

This play gets very heavy, and intense – maybe verging on melodramatic – and my slightly shaky mental state is not really helping me discuss it critically, but I’ll do my best. In terms of its basic formula and the ideas behind it, Toast might remind you a bit of previous People You Know plays, but of course it isn’t a bad formula and they aren’t bad ideas. When I interviewed Writer/Director Maisie Michaelson-Friend along with fellow director Ava Cecile Reid Samans, she described it as a play ‘about relationships and the way that you can go so long knowing someone and then realise that there’s something about them that you don’t know and how you then move forward from that’. It’s set shortly before an engagement party: old friends from uni meet up, say funny and yet revealing things about themselves which gain extra meaning later, and everything builds up to a dramatic moment of revelation causing irrevocable changes in everyone’s relationships, with the pressure of imminently arriving party guests. Maisie says ‘I love these kind of real-time plays because it just feels like you’re a fly on the wall. They’re people that you’ve already met, the characters in this play, and I think it’s a lot of experiences that people will relate to, and I think that is kind of where the appeal is. It feels like you’re watching a part of your own life, or someone you know’s life, and it’s just that fascination you have with what goes on behind closed doors’. Ava explains that, whereas for Rat Race and Trust ‘being a fly on the wall for those plays was like getting an insider look into these different groups of people, these different demographics’, with Toast ‘these aren’t stereotypes of people. We made conscious choices with who we casted for certain things so it wouldn’t feel like caricatures or stereotypes’. Maisie continues ‘one thing that we’ve focused on especially in rehearsals is getting every actor really comfortable with their character and understanding where the contradictions lie in their character and where all the motives lie. It’s about individuals rather than a group’. The focus is on naturalist characters with believable complexity, people who could even be you (if you’re straight) or People You Know. And I do find much about these characters familiar and believable, though maybe largely only familiar to the sorts of people I’ve met in St Andrews.

The first thing you’ll notice about this play is that it’s in the round (or in the almost-a-square?) naturally helping create that fly on the wall feeling, though it’s not in Aikman’s this time so you can’t have a pint. Instead there’s a sumptuous set designed by Holly Ward, with a central table and a drinks trolley (I really want a drinks trolley now), a sofa, and a pallet/garden in three of the four corners – the last corner is used for the dramatic reveal. When you’re watching it you always have a good view of something going on, but the set also all feels natural, and it all just works. The couple getting engaged are Dan, played by Matt McCaffrey, and Tash, played by Iris Hedley. Dan is a guy who works in finance, responds to everything with hostility, doesn’t really think women are the same species as him, and says things like ‘I apologise internally’ and ‘chin-chin’ – a toast (haha) that would normally get me giggling because I’m very childish and it means dick in Japanese, but which is appropriate here because Dan is one. I especially like how his violent defensiveness turns into an arrogant silence at the end of the play. Iris really shines as the optimistic and caring Tash, always reaching out for physical intimacy with people and showing endless perfect little facial reactions of hurt or joy or sympathy, but unable to really understand the people she knows on a deeper level or accept changes to her status quo.

Callum Wardman-Browne plays total asshole Harry, interrupting everyone with his domineering masculinity, and a little surprised when they don’t laugh along. Theo Mackenzie’s Ollie is a slightly ineffectual philosopher with a much healthier sense of masculinity than Dan and ultimately some ability to stand up for himself, who is hopelessly in love with Liza Vasilyeva’s Margot, a photographer who likes artistic-sounding things and projects self-confidence, but whose underlying fragility causes a reliance on drugs and sex. Her trauma becomes the central focus of the play, but she doesn’t, and seeing her on the sidelines sitting alone and silent on the sofa while the others argue about it in front of her is truly harrowing. 

Maisie and Ava emphasise the good working environment on set. Ava says ‘Everyone has really gotten on. We have such a collaborative spirit on set, I feel like [...] everyone has their say, everyone’s voices are valued, and it really makes it a production that I love being a part of’, and Maisie follows up by praising Intimacy Coordinators Abby Myers and Ava: ‘everybody feels if they need to step out, if they need to take a moment, that’s completely fair [...] it really feels like a safe environment’. Ava says that ‘hopefully people can go round afterwards and say “the way that they did this and the way that they said this and the way that the lighting was here and the way that that prop was used here, that was so conducive to the end feeling” – no-one will actually say that but every choice we’ve made has been made with the goal in mind of people leaving feeling like’ – they both say at once – ‘whoa’. High aspirations, but I cried at the end and I’m here writing about all the ways they did this and that, so it succeeded for at least one person. Toast is in many ways another People You Know play, but that also means high production quality and good acting. Though it sometimes dips into melodrama with its serious subject matter, the ways the characters interact with it feel believable and effective. And tickets are being exclusively sold on the door, so unlike other People You Know plays it hasn’t long since sold out and you can still go watch it. Which you should.


other erin (she/her)


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