Poignant – and mouthwatering – stage adaptation of Nigel Slater’s memoir
Consider this ‘Nigel Slater: The Origin Story’. Reaching The Other Palace via Manchester’s The Lowry – where it premiered in 2018 – and the Edinburgh Fringe, ‘Toast’ is playwright Henry Filloux-Bennett’s loving adaptation of the food writer’s acclaimed memoir of the same name.
‘Toast’, the play, turns a spotlight on the tragedy-tinged childhood of Nigel (Giles Cooper) in 1960s West Midlands, from ages nine to 16. It covers the early death of his Mum (Lizzie Muncey) and then his strained, often awful relationship with his grieving, increasingly violent Dad (Stephen Ventura).
Filloux-Bennett’s script suffers a little from the ping-pong effect common to many memoir adaptations, sometimes bouncing too breathlessly between major events. But where ‘Toast’ succeeds is in capturing the same intoxicating, engrossing pleasure of food that the real-life Slater turns into mouth-watering poetry in his cookbooks. It’s woven into every part of Nigel’s life, beginning with his nine-year-old self’s commentary on making jam tarts with Mum. Later, it’s part of domestic warfare with step-mum Joan.
Every meal tells a story in Slater’s writing and the same is true here. From the deeply traditional family’s disastrous experiment with spaghetti bolognese, to Nigel’s Victoria sandwich one-upmanship with Joan, food is funny, a waft of nostalgia and sometimes burnt at the edges.
Director Jonnie Riordan’s production is light and fluid: a heightened reality of family life and cooking sessions that take place against a kitchen set that looks like an illustration. At regular intervals, the cast pass cakes and sweets to the audience, tickling memories as well as taste-buds.
But while ‘Toast’ isn’t averse to nostalgia for a time of local butchers and old-fashioned sweet shops, a tartness undercuts the cloyingness. Dad’s patrolling of the ‘appropriate’ food for boys stirs a dollop of homophobia into the already complicated personal recipe of gay teen Nigel.
Cooper touchingly captures the young Nigel’s early culinary fussiness, blending this with confusion and aching vulnerability when Mum dies. Before this happens, he and Muncey are delightful together, bonding over a mixing bowl. In contrast, Marie Lawrence is deliciously over-the-top as Nigel’s perception of Joan: all piled hair, eye rolls and fags.
A ’60s soundtrack and funny fantasy sequences (mostly involving Joan) make for a pacier second half. But, crucially, ‘Toast’ also works out when to slow down. For all the preceding, audience-winking, ‘here’s one we made earlier’ food, a pivotal scene when Nigel invents – for the first time – a recipe and Cooper makes it from scratch on stage packs a genuine wallop. It’s a well-seasoned ending.
|Venue name:||The Other Palace|
|Transport:||Tube: Victoria/St James's Park|
|Price:||£15-£65. Runs 2hr 10min|
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