Nigel Slater's Toast
Henry Filloux-Bennett, adapted from the book by Nigel Slater
York Theatre Royal
Based on the cookery writer’s award-winning memoir from 2003—subtitled "The Story of a Boy’s Hunger"—Toast depicts Slater’s formative years, charting his development from precocious schoolboy to embattled teenager. Throughout the show, in good times and bad, food remains a constant source of joy and escape for the young gourmet.
In the first half of the play, nine-year-old Nigel (played with delightful buoyancy by Giles Cooper) is living a life of cosy domesticity with his adoring mum (Katy Federman) and emotionally repressed dad (Blair Plant). Like Slater’s book, Henry Filloux-Bennett doesn’t shy away from depicting the grey tedium of English suburban life in the 1960s. However, this monotony is undercut by the tender bond that Nigel shares with his mother and the intense pleasure he takes in baking with her.
The second half portrays Nigel’s life after the early death of his mother. After the sweetness of the first half, we now experience the bitterness of Slater’s teenage years—namely his deteriorating relationship with his father and the arrival of a grotesque new stepmother (Samantha Hopkins). Things end on a hopeful note, however, with our protagonist taking his first steps as a professional cook and beginning to accept his homosexuality.
Filloux-Bennet has done a fine job with the script, preserving the wit and warmth of Slater’s original book whilst also adding imaginative twists. In one scene, for example, the ensemble cast act out a version of University Challenge in order to guess the arbitrary distinctions that Nigel’s father makes between boys’ sweets and girls’ sweets.
Director Jonnie Riordan’s staging is packed with energy. There are some beautifully choreographed moments between Nigel and his mother involving moving kitchen units, and in the second half the culinary war between our hero and his gorgon stepmother is thrillingly played out to the propulsive bassline of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”.
As mentioned earlier, Giles Cooper excels in the leading role, and he is matched by a strong ensemble. Particularly fine is Katy Federman as his doting mother; the warmth of their relationship permeates the entire show. Blair Plant captures the contradictions of Nigel’s flawed father and Samantha Hopkins imbues ‘Aunt Joan’ with the right amount of withering disdain. There’s also strong support from Stefan Edwards in a handful of smaller roles.
Libby Watson’s set—a replica of the quintessential 1960s kitchen—provides a versatile performance space for the cast, and Zoe Spurr’s candy-coloured lighting adds to the sense of nostalgia.
The magic of food is present throughout the production, from the smell of burnt toast that greets you as you take your seat to the wrapped sweets that are handed out during the first half.
Overall, Toast is a tasty treat worth savouring.
Reviewer: James Ballands