Writer: Henry Filloux-Bennett
Director: Jonnie Riordan
Reviewer: David Guest
The mouth-watering story of a childhood remembered by food continues to be a production to savour now it’s on a national tour.
Nigel Slater’s Toast started out at The Lowry in Salford last year before having a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe, then it enjoyed a lengthy sojourn at The Other Palace in London. It’s been touring the country since August, offering a well-deserved chance for many more to see this charming memoir of family life in the Sixties.
Chef and food writer Slater is renowned for creating stories by teasing the taste buds and giving every recipe or review a life beyond the page, so it’s appropriate that his autobiography did much the same, with each childhood memory jogged by a particular dish or its ingredients.
Henry Filloux-Bennett creates a similar atmosphere in his well-measured play based on Slater’s reminiscences, whisking together characters and moments so that we too identify recollections with recipes such as mum’s flapjacks, Joan’s lemon meringue pies, or dad’s spaghetti Bolognese.
It’s as much about the sheer joy of cooking as it is the story of a boy’s hunger, a timid child who never quite fitted in. And as Slater’s essays about growing up are brought to life through the tastes, smells, sounds and sight of comestibles we understand how food became both aides-memoire and a means of surviving realities such as a mother’s death, a strict father’s household rules, boyhood beatings and sexual awakening.
Tangy direction from Jonnie Riordan (who knows plenty of theatrical tricks and treats through his work with the uncompromising and creative Frantic Assembly company) spices up the food moods and ensures that the sentimental parts of the journey are never cloying; indeed, there is a sharp edge alongside the sheer energy and colour that occasionally provokes audience gasps.
There are delicious moments of choreography as parts of the set and characters whisk and whirl their way around the stage, with one beautiful example of mother and son sharing a dreamlike key tender moment atop counters on casters. The surreal ingredients are fun without ever overpowering the coming of age story.
Giles Cooper, who has played Nigel since the play’s London premiere, is perfect and impressive casting. He is never off the stage, yet constantly discovers new levels of emotion, humour and depth as he shares the story through first-person narration as well as being fully immersed in the unfolding chronicle. He has a youthful zest which gives a natural frame to his portrayal of the nine-year-old/teenager and a charm which ensures his experiences are empathetic and engaging.
The other four cast members play all the rest of the roles with a flourish. They appear as scene-shifters, part of the dance routines, and an array of eccentric characters who shaped young Nigel’s life, together forming a strong ensemble team.
Katy Federman’s warm portrayal of Nigel’s ill mum is a thing of beauty as she provides the comfort of maternal care even through her pain, with memories ranging from delicious jam tarts to cremated toast (“burned as surely as the sun rises each morning.”). This is contrasted wonderfully with a manic school teacher who introduces young Nigel to the thrill of baking Victoria sponges and damson jam in cookery classes.
As dad Blair Plant successfully walks the fine line between a loving husband and father who tries to create a fairytale life for his family and a bully driven to despair by the death of his wife and the thought of a son growing up to be anything but emphatically manly.
Samantha Hopkins has a ball as stepmother Joan, who discovers that baking can be a way of waging war in the family life of comfortable suburban domesticity, while Stefan Edwards impresses in a range of satisfying and notable roles including a hunky gardener, a swotty schoolchum and the ballet dancer son of an early employer.
Credit too to Libby Watson for the splendid multi-functional Sixties kitchen set, redolent of its era and the perfect setting for the story to be played out, though it feels a little engulfed on the Richmond stage.
For those familiar with the production there may well be an outcry with letters to The Times about the lack of a sharing of walnut whips – there was nothing quite so calming and evocative as the sound of 500 wrappers being removed to accompany both a shared family experience around the television and an introduction to voyeurism for young Nigel – but the audience still gets to enjoy the delights of Parma Violets, toffees and Love Hearts (if fellow viewers pass the goodie bags around and don’t hang on to them for a personal binge as seemed to happen on first night at Richmond!).
Nigel Slater’s Toast is undeniably a well-crafted and appetising multi-sensory confection that skilfully avoids being merely a sugar-coated tidbit. With layers of light and dark, it is a worthy stage translation of Slater’s honest autobiography, capturing efficiently the growing pains of a child whose life is reflected through a love affair with food in a novel and endearing production.
Runs until 26 October 2019 and on tour | Image: Piers Foley