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Nigel Slater’s Toast – Lawrence Batley Theatre

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer: Nigel Slater

Adaptation: Henry Filloux-Bennett

Director: Jonnie Riordan

Food writer Nigel Slater has made his name on the concept of no-nonsense cookery. His television series introduced a new kind of chef to the British public. Quiet, unassuming but clearly knowledgeable, Slater’s mantra – pans, heat and local produce – has won him a loyal fan base.

In his memoir, Toast, Nigel describes for us his food journey. It is not a journey of someone born into a cooking dynasty, or a chef who has battled his way up from a Glaswegian council estate. Slater’s biography revels in an ordinariness: his childhood is punctuated by Angel Delight and spaghetti hoops.

Working from the successful stage adaptation, the Lawrence Batley Theatre has produced an audio version that aims to give the audience a similar experience. Directed by Jonnie Riordan, the play is accompanied by animations from Dusthouse. Playing Nigel, Giles Cooper narrates as the drawings come to life on the screen. The detritus of the kitchen – bags of flour, mixing bowls – are recreated with a watercolour delicacy.

What the production conveys very quickly and with great ease is Nigel’s nostalgic connection with food. It is deep-rooted and almost fetishistic. Ritual is hardwired into the Slater psyche. Even down to the brand of food they purchase, ritual exists in the Slater household to safeguard against calamity; the unexpected. It almost works.

Toast is an intense experience: Nigel baking a cake with his Mum is not just a treasured memory; he recalls every detail down to the final crumb. But even the simplest pleasures – a slice of toast, for example – cannot be enjoyed for their own sake. Nigel lives in a world where What People Think is of the utmost importance. Even sweets can be cleanly categorised by who is allowed to eat them. Sherbet Fountain is a girl’s sweet, After Eights are strictly for the grown ups. As the play progresses, Nigel’s feelings for food and desire become even more complicated. He does not fit the mould.

As a friend of Nigel Slater, Giles Cooper’s performance is seamless. The hesitations, the quick, dry humour is all there. Working with Lizzie Muncey as Nigel’s mum, the two build a compelling portrait of a relationship that, for Slater, was fundamental. Teaching him to adapt recipes and trust his own instincts, this way of cooking goes on to inform his later style.

Even in his first job, working at a local pub, Slater’s journey feels pre-destined.. He meets the chef, Doreen. Recently hired, she has overhauled the kitchen, chucked out the microwave and filled the menu with old-school classics. Cook seasonal, cook fresh. Toast isn’t just a memoir of Slater’s family life – it’s a food manifesto.

The stage production famously uses Nigel Slater’s love of smells (he lists them for us) to create an immersive experience for its audience. What this radio production does instead is recreate that sense of texture and taste through sound. A frying pan with butter on the edge of melting; the smell, the anticipation. We fill the gaps in for ourselves.

While Toast deals with Slater’s turbulent childhood – and there is a lot to unpack – the overriding sense of the production is the joy and freedom that cookery has given Slater’s life. Ritual still has its part, but Slater’s philosophy has endeared itself to so many of us because of its truth. Toast works – on the stage or on radio – because it celebrates this unequivocally. Pleasure, in whatever form, should never be denied. Pass the Walnut Whips.

Available here to rent until  31 July 2020

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