Writer: Henry Filloux-Bennett
Director: Jonnie Riordan
Reviewer: Katy Roberts
Based on Nigel Slater’s award-winning biography Toast – The Story of A Boy’s Hunger, and following a sold-out run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and a London transfer to The Other Palace, Toast tells the story of Slater’s childhood in suburban 1960s England, brought to life through the tastes, smells, sights, and sounds of cookery that defined key moments of his youth.
Against the backdrop of the quintessential 1960s kitchen (beautifully and simply rendered in Libby Watson’s minimalist set design), a nine-year-old Nigel (Giles Cooper) sets the scene whilst he and his beloved mother (Katy Federman) make jam tarts and eat rounds of bread as they do so. “It is impossible not to love someone who makes you toast,” he says fondly, despite the fact that his mother’s toast is perpetually charred despite being nine now he has “never seen butter without black bits in it.” But the comfort of these moments cannot last. Nigel’s mother dies and he is thrust into a new world; one where kitchen countertops become a battleground, as war is waged in the form of jam tarts, mince pies, Victoria sponges and a formidable lemon meringue pie, as Nigel battles for supremacy in the war for his father’s affections against his new step-mother, Joan (Samantha Hopkins).
As Nigel, Giles Cooper touchingly captures young Nigel’s early fussiness around food and he does a fantastic job of portraying a nine-year-old, with none of the overacting that can make similar performances in other shows incredibly irksome, odd or slightly creepy. Cooper leads the audience through the story with his energetic first-person narration, beautifully conveying a child’s curiosity and his need for attention (from both his mother and the audience). Young Nigel is also wonderfully eccentric, in the way small boys often are, keeping a pocketbook of lists of things like favourite smells and appropriate table manners. It is a hugely impressive performance, and the audience warms to Nigel immediately.
Katy Fenderman’s performance as Mum is beautiful, and her scenes with Nigel are delightful to watch as they bond over a mixing bowl. Nigel’s perception of step-mum Joan is deliciously over-the-top, and a complete contrast: all piled hair, eye rolls, fags and too-much-Pledge polish. Stefan Edwards is brilliant to watch as he cycles through his roster of supporting characters alongside Fenderman and Hopkins with a hilariously camp level of pizzazz, excelling during the slick dance sequences. The character of Dad feels more thinly-drawn than those of Mum or Joan so Blair Plant’s performance doesn’t come across as strongly as it perhaps should. We do not spend as much time with Nigel’s Dad as we do his Mum in the play’s first half; however there are flashes of lovely, tender moments (such as when Nigel reveals the wedding cake he has made for his father and Joan) – so it feels like a disservice to the character that when news arrives from Joan of his death, and it is treated almost fleetingly, with very little reaction in the way of anything from Nigel and with no explanation.
Director Jonnie Riordan’s previous experience with Frantic Assembly is clear here; as the story unfolds in a heightened reality of family life, the physical theatre elements bring an added element of magic – a tender moment between mother and son becomes a gentle countertop waltz, and Nigel’s culinary one-upmanship with Joan is played out against the strains of Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer as cake trollies filled with baked goods are whirled around the stage. The moments where the reality of memory are called into question work incredibly effectively – watching Nigel break down in his mother’s arms as he throws himself into baking to escape the memory of his last, angry interaction with his mother before her death – and then watching the moment rewind and repeat, truthfully this time, is hugely effective.
This is a production that leans heavily on the idea of evoking nostalgia; through its references to 1960s food and cookbooks and those institutions of the high streets of old – local butchers, greengrocers, and old-fashioned sweet shops. There is a sharpness which undercuts this cloyingness, though: a violent altercation between Nigel and his Dad after Nigel spills raspberry juice on the carpet; the dismissal of the family’s gardener after Dad catches him getting changed in front of his son; Dad’s tight patrolling of what constitutes ‘appropriate’ food and sweets for boys – the latter two events stirring up confusion and adding a dollop of homophobia into the already-complicated recipe of Nigel’s life as a young, gay teen.
Much has been made about the novelty of bringing the food to life in this production through cast members passing various sweet treats into the audience at vital points in the story. It is a novel idea, and works quite well in the instances involving quiet foods such as flapjacks and walnut whips – however, the lengthy sequence involving bags of Parma Violets, Love Hearts, Fruit Salad and Blackjack sweets (so many noisy wrappers!) pulls you out of the action completely as an audience member. As the lights come up, nothing happens on stage whilst the cast dash around the auditorium and other audience members begin to talk loudly and at length at this break in the action. It takes a further ten minutes for the rustling of sweet bags and wrappers to die off completely – during which time the action has started again, and it is incredibly difficult to follow the actors and concentrate due to the distraction of rustling bags and sweets from the audience. It is a shame because it is a really interesting idea, but in practice, it doesn’t work quite as smoothly as hoped, although the scene where Nigel devises and cooks his first recipe onstage in real-time during the play’s final ten minutes is wonderful.
Toast is a fun celebration of food, the way it shapes our childhoods and the memories it evokes, led by hugely strong performances from Giles Cooper and Katy Fenderman. Riordan’s decision to incorporate food into the production is an interesting one in theory but doesn’t quite work in practice. The show also doesn’t strike the tragic notes it really should, but ultimately, Toast is a warm hug of a show and if you long for the nostalgia of days gone by, are a fan of Slater’s writing (and just food in general), this, despite its flaws, is a sweet treat worth savouring.
Runs until: 12 October and on tour Image: Simon Annand