Nigel Slater's Toast
Henry Filloux-Bennett, based on the book by Nigel Slater
Nigel Slater’s Toast, based on Slater's 2004 memoir, has had quite a journey, starting off at Manchester’s Lowry, making its way through the Edinburgh Fringe and enjoying a run at The Other Palace in London, before heading out on tour for another four months.
In theory, it’s easy to see why Toast would appeal to such a vast audience. Slater’s weekly food columns aside, it’s very appealing to find the origins of a successful and worldly chef’s love of food, not amidst exotic markets with strange produce piled high or unique culinary experiences in far-off lands, but in fact in a very typical British 1960s kitchen, where spaghetti bolognese is exotic, no-one knows what fennel is and Angel Delight is everyone's favourite dessert.
We are first introduced to Nigel (Giles Cooper) as a 9-year-old in knee-high shorts, giddily making jam tarts with his mum (Katy Ferman), and we follow him along, all the way to 17 years old, trying to make his own way as a chef in the big smoke.
Yes, the trials and tribulations of the story are relatable, but so much so that it’s almost not worth telling. And it seems that in trying to resolve this problem, director Jonnie Riordan and writer Henry Filloux-Bennett have caught themselves in a bit of a catch 22: on the one hand, the brilliantly creative choreography and silly sketch ‘bits’ throughout give the story some much-needed flavour where content is lacking.
The University Challenge set-up, for example, for guessing Nigel’s dad’s (Blair Plant) seemingly arbitrary distinctions between what he considers girls’ sweets and boys’ sweets; or the introduction of Dad’s new girlfriend (Samantha Hopkins) in an Ikettes-style sequence set to "Blue Velvet". But whilst these are certainly highlights of the show, their dreamlike silliness and gentle nostalgia voids any real emotions. So when, for example, Nigel’s mum dies, it’s hard to feel anything at all.
That being said, the production certainly keeps us entertained, with a stellar soundtrack of Motown and ‘60s pop (Alexandra Faye Braithwaite), clever choreography and a generous amount of self-awareness. Food is, of course, a constant throughout: we see the care and affection between Nigel and his mum as they prepare to make all manner of homely sweet-treats: in a bid for Dad’s affection, Nigel and his stepmother, ‘Auntie Joanie’, battle it out over baked goods; Nigel snacks on a Walnut Whip during his first glimpse of lasciviousness, and so on.
For the most part, cooking is enacted via nifty hand-offs, transforming a bowl of wet ingredients into a perfectly iced cake. We do get a little bit of live cooking, as Nigel prepares his first recipe-free dish, and the smell of garlic and mushrooms wafts tantalisingly through the audience. It would have been nice to have a few more snacks divvied out to the audience considering how much food features. In the first half we’re passed bags of old-fashioned confectionery (Parma violets, sherbet lemons, Refreshers) and the sea of rustling wrappers in a theatre is strangely satisfying where usually you would suffer under punishing looks for such behaviour. But this is the only time we’re invited to join in Nigel’s gastronomic journey, and for the rest we may only observe.
The show’s premise has legs and the cast’s obvious enjoyment, particularly in the more ridiculous scenes, is infectious, but unfortunately, whilst the production is served with lashings of imagination and energy, I was left feeling hungry for more snacks and a better story.
Reviewer: Miriam Sallon