Writer: Henry Filloux-Bennett
Director & Choreographer: Jonnie Riordan
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
Add a dollop of nostalgia, a tablespoon of heartbreak, two teaspoons of warmth and a sprinkle of darkness and TV chef and broadsheet columnist Nigel Slater’s autobiographical memoir transfers from page to stage. His 2004 work was turned into a film in 2010 and now a stage production is embarking on a national tour. Writer, new artistic director and chief executive of the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, Henry Filloux-Bennett opens the UK tour at his base after its successful birth at The Lowry in Salford before transferring to Edinburgh and London.
The smell of fresh toast fills the auditorium as young Nigel Slater (Giles Cooper), nine years old and dressed in school uniform, narrates us through his relationship with his Mum (Katy Federman), Dad (Blair Plant) and an emerging love affair with food and cooking. Slater’s memoirs of his boyhood is a coming of age story through grief and sexual awakening that is a difficult adaptation to present onstage. Memory, anecdotes and snippets of childhood are garnered like ingredients of a cake in a mixing bowl, hoping the drama will rise like a cake in the oven. It is a recipe that, in the main, yields success as Filloux-Bennett and creative team lead us through a non-linear and slightly dreamlike version of Slater’s life between the ages of nine to seventeen.
“It’s impossible not to love someone who makes you toast” the young Nigel professes early on in the play. And Nigel’s mum does, as well as kick-starting his early love of cooking. This is the linchpin that anchors the play’s first half as mum and son, despite her illness, bond over the non-prescriptive methods of cooking. “More or less” becomes a mantra that releases the creativity in young Nigel’s mind – away from Marguerite Patten’s formulaic Cooking in Colour. The play’s fast style chops and changes in and out of narrative storytelling, naturalism and occasional bizarre ensemble physical sequences as the lines between recollection and false memory become blurred. It is the late 1960s and spaghetti Bolognese with parmesan cheese is perhaps one step too far for a traditional British family from Wolverhampton! With mum’s health failing due to asthma it is a tough end to the first half as we learn that Nigel’s beloved won’t see Christmas morning or taste the Christmas cake they had lovingly prepared together.
Moving into his teenage years, and still coming to terms with his loss, the second half of the play continues in much the same vein. With ‘Auntie Joan’ now competing for Dad’s affection a slightly odd cooking competition develops, a culinary awakening in the kitchen of a local hotel and a sexual awakening as Nigel (now sixteen) accidentally discovers the local dogging site as well as meeting handsome ballet student Josh.
The charm of this piece is the nostalgia and wistfulness not only of childhood but, more universally, brands of traditionally English produce. The script is littered with references to Twinning’s, Angel Delight and Walnut Whip (which, by the way, every audience member gets to eat). The olfactory gland, it is said, is the strongest evoker of memory and Toast wants to take you right back to a bygone era using sight, smell and taste. It is certainly an effective weapon in transportation. There is much fun to be had as cooking sequences become more like Blue Peter demonstrations with cakes that were magically ‘made earlier’ swapping in. Libby Watson’ colourful design, setting the whole play to the background of the family kitchen, has a cartoonish quality. And it is this exaggeration of memory that infuses this theatrical recipe. The four actors surrounding the young Nigel swap in and out of characters that border on caricature with the exception of Mum whose tragic plight grounds the whole piece.
Toast treads a fine line between nostalgia and sentiment and occasionally tips over into the latter as the mechanics of emotional manipulation become a little too visible. Like all good cooking creations, it feels like Filloux-Bennett and Jonnie Riordan have experimented with many theatrical ingredients and have concocted something different and new and it is a welcome addition to the menu.
Runs at The Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield until 24th August and then tours | Image: Contributed