Review: TOAST – a compassionate comedy about loving our bodies

Naomi van den Broek reviews TOAST at Little Andromeda, 3 June 2021.

What if women truly loved their bodies? This question is at the heart of physical theatre work TOAST by company Zen Zen Zo NZ. This is a contemporary devised work that utilises material sourced verbatim from the experiences of people during lockdown(s), and devised by Alys Hill, Mary Davison, Megan Herd, Andy Brigden, Stella Cheersmith, Jane McLauchlan, Kate Allen and Martine Baanvinger.

I had missed their sold-out performance at the Made In Canterbury festival at the Isaac Theatre Royal earlier this year, so was delighted to see this season programmed at Little Andromeda. Little Andromeda continues to present innovative and experimental programming, serving as a perfect foil to Ōtautahi’s mainstage offerings. Reflecting last night on the radio silence from the Christchurch Arts Festival regarding the seeming disappearance of this year’s festival, it’s fantastic that at least some works that might have found their way into festival programming are on offer at Little A. The capacity opening night audience were primarily unfamiliar faces to me, a testament to a company with its own following, as well as the continued commitment to a diversity of offerings from the venue. 

This hour-long work is presented in three acts – Eat Toast, We’re Toast, and A Toast – each of which interrogates the problematic relationships women have with food and their bodies. Act I opens with marketing style vox pops describing delicious food items in a manner both salacious and grotesque; the bait and switch that’s about to occur is evident from the outset.

Care and attention have been given to structure, flow and pace. Thoughtful direction and staging by director Alys Hill and assistant director Ginnie Thorner ensures that the work presents as an integrated whole, greater than the sum of its various wonderful parts. Players Kate Allen, Mary Davidson and Hill are generous, energetic and fearless performers. Their body and voice work is exceptional across the board. The near-constant laughter from the audience is well managed, with only very few moments where dialogue is lost as a result. 

TOAST - A laugh-out-loud, heart-warming, shame-stopping show

It’s so refreshing and joyous to see fleshy, mature women’s bodies on stage. Some of my favourite moments are the personification of body parts such as bellies, boobs and feet. This is the work of performers who completely understand that acting is a full body experience, and that it’s not only faces and voices that can express emotion. 

Other noteworthy moments are the ‘ritual of the fridge’ accompanied by Pentecostal a capella singing, the changing room, and the various cake recipes offered in Act III. A scene that juxtaposes the voice overs of children talking about their love of their bodies with an adult body being prepped for plastic surgery with a red lipstick has significant emotional impact.

Costuming and set are two of the unmitigated highlights of this production. Chris Reddington’s trifold screen with drapes becomes a dressing room, a gym, a mirror, a fridge, and a magnifying lens through which anxiety and shame are viewed. My companion and I both remark in hushed and envious tones that it is the “perfect touring set” – the holy grail for small scale productions such as this. The (uncredited) costume design is also fantastic. The players each wear Spanx-style shapewear and crop tops, which both poke fun at and highlight the ways in which women are expected to (com)modify their bodies to be more ‘palatable’. One other costume piece, a large white tunic, is shared between the players and used to judicious and hilarious effect throughout. 

Projection onto both the set and the performers adds another interesting element, planting this work firmly in the social media age. However, the seating arrangement at Little Andromeda does make it hard to see some of this work if you are seated to the sides of the theatre, as we were. Skilful lighting design by Bonnie Judkins is especially effective in helping create the various transformations of the set. Operator, Oliver Judkins, manages the various technical elements well.

My only small gripes are that the transitions in the sound design are sometimes jarring in a way that I don’t feel serves the on-stage action. And, in a couple of sections where the show’s message is more to the fore, the production veers close to ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ territory, something that is otherwise expertly managed in the rest of the work. Perhaps this could be to do with the tone in which these sections are delivered; the voice work feels very “actor-y” here. Perhaps a way of managing these sections would be to go for a vocal production that feels more authentically New Zealand, in contrast to the exaggerated, high stakes feel of the rest of the piece? But these are such small quibbles for a production that is an utter delight from start to finish.

This work is a tragedy played as a comedy. The women behind us laughingly remark “This is us, everyday!” after the scene in a changing room where nothing fits and self-loathing is writ large. This is intelligent and compassionate theatre-making, and I genuinely hope that those women can interrogate and reconcile these situations more knowingly as a result of attending last night’s performance.

TOAST runs at Little Andromeda from 3-5 June, 2021.

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