Review: ‘Toast of London’ is the impolite showbiz comedy for these impolite times
Where are you, American viewer, likely to have met the stentorian English comic actor Matt Berry, whose “Toast of London” comes to stateside cable Wednesday on IFC?
Currently, Berry plays an English vampire on Staten Island in the FX vampire mockumentary series “What We Do in the Shadows,” developed by Jemaine Clement from his film of the same name, and is the voice of Prince Merkimer, man and pig, in Matt Groening’s Netflix animated fantasy “Disenchantment.” Longer ago, there was “The IT Crowd,” with Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade; the ’80s horror pastiche “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” and a few episodes of “The Mighty Boosh,” all of which have managed airings this side of the Atlantic. And every year around this time, I post a link to “AD/BC,” a pitch-perfect pastiche 1970s-style rock opera written by Berry and Ayoade that tells the story of the Nativity from the point of view of the innkeeper.
Created by Berry and Arthur Mathews (“Father Ted”), “Toast of London” stars Berry as Steven Toast, a British actor who is not so much struggling — he works — as stuck. (“Maybe I should broaden my horizons a little,” he suggests to unreliable agent Jane Plough, played by Doon Mackichan. “The thing is, Toast,” she replies, “you don’t have any horizons”). The show debuted in the U.K. in 2013; the second and third seasons will come to IFC in 2020, and a fourth is possible when Berry — whose current U.K. series, a Victorian detective comedy called “Year of the Rabbit” that will also come to IFC next year — finds the time. (All three extant seasons are also streaming on Netflix.)
It is an impolite sort of show, profane, sexually farcical, mock-heroic, sometimes violent. There is a mildly serial element, but its arcs are mostly short, with Toast sent on different jobs and involved with different women in each episode. What remains constant is the horrible play in which he stars nightly — its title so obscene that it is masked with noise when anyone says it — and which opens him up to abuse when he is recognized from it in public. And there are regular trips to the voice-over studio where he is ever more openly mocked by engineer Danny Bear (Tim Downie) and producer Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif). (Berry and Mathews write the best character names this side of Dickens — Daz Klondyke, Peggy Plywood, Max Gland, Strawberry Rathbone, Senna Poddington, Hamilton Meathouse, Greta Cargo, Ricky Seasack, Dinky Frinkbuster.)
Berry is a stocky, hirsute fellow, with a big, rich voice that immediately calls to mind the word “thespian” and gives everything he says a sheen of (over)dramatic irony; it has the quality of being dubbed, even when you see the words come out of his mouth. (In “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” he did actually dub his own character, badly.) His Toast is something of a loser, but also enough of a hero, relatively speaking, to keep us on his side. He is more self-approving than he has a right to be, which sometimes works for him and mostly does not. He gets along with his landlord, retired actor Ed Howzer-Black (Robert Bathurst), who is not competition. But he is treated with disdain more often, including by his brother, Blair (Adrian Lukis), a military buffoon; his ex-wife, Ellen (Amanda Donohoe); and rival Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock), “the most homophobic actor in London” — with whose wife, called only Mrs. Purchase (Tracy Ann Oberman), Toast is sleeping.
In stateside terms, Berry’s character has something to do with the blustery bumblers Bob Hope used to play or that Danny McBride takes on in his various HBO series, though tonally (and thematically) “Toast of London” more resembles Maria Bamford’s absurdist “Lady Dynamite,” another show about the indignities of show business. There are cartoon sound effects, old-fashioned crash zooms. Toast orders a cocktail so tall it can’t be seen over, while a “small sandwich” Toast makes himself is in fact very, very tiny. A young, black African woman (“daughter of the Nigerian ambassador”) is turned by an unscrupulous plastic surgery into a dead ringer for (not young, not black) former British game show host Bruce Forsyth, played by Bruce Forsyth. Toast, in an episode full of James Bond references, finds himself $20,000 in debt to Andrew Lloyd Webber, and stalked by Webber’s “enforcer,” the British musical theater superstar Michael Ball. (“It gives him something to do in the day between shows and winning awards.”) There are musical numbers as well. (Berry has several albums of fine, non-comical progressive rock to his name.)
The jobs Toast feels himself above, and invariably accepts, are in fact ridiculous, involving ridiculous people. He auditions in a prison visiting room for a director in jail for Holocaust denial; another attempts to murder him; a third is making a film called “Prince Philip, Scoundrel Dog” merely in order to revenge himself on the Duke of Edinburgh, (“Look, Duke, we all know that you’re the murderer,” says Toast, playing the part of a police detective. “Your life of privilege and being carried around by servants won’t save you now.”)
He does have his limits, though: “I won’t play a bald man,” Toast declares. “Not even on Radio 4.”
'Toast of London'
When: Midnight and 12:30 a.m. Wednesday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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