Nigel Slater’s memoirs become a compelling stage production in this fine adaptation by Henry Filloux-Bennett. The late 1960s are evoked in the music we hear on arrival and in the design of Libby Watson (all kitchen tops, red toaster, old portable gramophone and yellow Aga) and the period choreography of director Jonnie Riordan.
Mixing a discovery of cookery with growing up, we see Nigel at nine and the relationship he has with his mum, an asthmatic in a floral dress, as they make jam tarts together (only with strawberry, blackcurrant or lemon curd). A moving sequence which is almost dreamlike in which boy and mother dance on the worktops to Charles Trenet’s La mer is complemented with the fun of a Top of the Form round in which “Mr Slater’s views on sweets” is the specialist subject.
So much here pulls back memories of the sixties and seventies – sharing sherbet fountains, the “magic ingredient – lard”, school cookery classes, and the awkwardness of the working dad and the stay-at-home mum. The cast give out bags of sweets for the audience to pick from in act one, with Walnut Whips taking pride of place in act two, the act of exploring the chocolate treat leading into Nigel’s first experiences as a voyeur.
Filloux-Bennett’s script deftly deals with the different emotional events in young Nigel’s life, culminating before the interval with the knowledge that “I knew that Father Christmas would not be coming”. Giles Cooper is simply marvellous as the young, precocious child who turns into a moody, then confident teenager dealing with a new force in the house and “Aunty Joan” with her food contests.
Stephen Ventura does well in an unsympathetic role as Dad, who copes badly with a son he cannot understand, even down to leaving him marshmallows each night to help communicate what he cannot say, while Lizzie Muncey’s Mum, physically weak but mentally strong, is well-defined as Nigel’s most enduring influence right up to the closing scene. Marie Lawrence brings her comic gifts to the hideous and over-painted Joan, who barges into the Slater household to cause havoc and discord.
Toast is a deeply reflective piece that will make you laugh (Nigel refers to Aunty Joan as “that baking bitch”), make you cry (that act one closer), and make you hungry (you get a whiff of glorious garlic mushrooms towards the end as Nigel builds his first signature dish). With the right mix of humour, cooking and pathos, this adaptation really is a winner.
You can catch Toast at The Other Palace until the 3 August. Book here.
Photo credit – Simon Annand