ICYMI: Mara Joy on Toast of London
Mara Joy of The Spontaneous Players delves into the ridiculous world of Steven Toast. Are we excited? "Yes. Yes. Yeeeeeessss."
For years I've been confused by who exactly Clem Fandango is, and why it was so important to hear him. I knew he had something to do with the Channel 4 sitcom Toast of London, but as much as people went on about it, and even though I knew it had people I loved in it, I never got round to watching. Most of my sitcom content is American these days (The Good Place, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, etc.) so I had missed it until I had this excuse to binge series one. It was somehow both exactly and not-at-all what I expected.
I've been a fan of Matt Berry since Garth Marenghi's Darkplace and Arthur Mathews gets a lot of my respect, so I really shouldn't have been surprised by how utterly mad the whole thing is. Berry plays egotistical jobbing actor Steven Toast and it's quite clearly the role of his career. His deadpan reactions followed by over-the-top mania as he finds himself in absurd situation after absurd situation is perfectly pitched. Recounting the plots would sound like some kind of fever dream as he goes from an electrified fencing match with a crazed director, to being hunted by a tuxedo-clad Michael Ball, to sharing a flat with a Nigerian woman who has had bad plastic surgery that makes her look exactly like Bruce Forsyth. It is surreal slapstick of the strangest sort and that's even before we get to the musical break of every episode, featuring Berry's crooning voice and at least one child dressed as Toast playing a saxophone solo.
If I'm honest, it's a bit much at times. Watching the Pilot episode (episode one on Netflix) I was left completely cold, except for one scene at a voiceover recording studio (featuring the aforementioned Clem Fandango) that’s repeated in a later episode. I kept watching and was slowly drawn into the bizarre rhythm of the dialogue, the moments of pure fantasy and the ridiculous running jokes. It's a show where everyone from Toast's agent – played by the inestimable Doon Mackichan – to the bizarrely attired extras that populate Toast's London are allowed to be as cartoonish as possible. The fantastically-monikered side characters like Ray Purchase, Jane Plough, Susan Random, Hamilton Meathouse and, of course, Clem Fandango fill out a world where anything is possible and you really can't ever guess what's going to happen next.
Steven Toast joins a long line of classic sitcom buffoons that you can't help but root for, even with their boorish behaviour and many obvious flaws. Deep in the heart of all the pantomime silliness, Berry is able to imbue the terrible actor with genuine pathos unexpected in this toybox land. Skip the Pilot and dive right in, I say. Yes, I can finally hear you, Clem Fandango!
If you want more nonsense with occasional unexpected depth, I recommend checking out the Edinburgh International Improv Festival running from 7-10 February at Assembly Roxy and the Scottish Storytelling Centre (the festival launch event is headlined by Abandoman), and come see my group performing an improvised Harry Potter or Sherlock Holmes comedy play every Thursday at Monkey Barrel.
Edinburgh International Improv Festival, Scottish Storytelling Centre & Assembly Roxy, 7-10 Feb
The Spontaneous Players present Spontaneous Sherlock and Spontaneous Potter, Monkey Barrel, every Thursday, £5