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Toast

Henry Filloux-Bennett
PW Productions & Karl Sydow present the Lowry production
The Other Palace
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Nigel Slater’s prize-winning memoir of his childhood and adolescence is both poignant and funny and so is Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation as directed by Jonnie Riordan.

The book isn’t a straight chronological record but a series of memories sparked off by food, but on stage is a more consecutive story in which Giles Cooper as Nigel narrates directly to the audience giving the essence of the book rather than specific detail. We don’t meet Nigel’s elder brothers, the dog or his live-in incontinent aunty, but we do share his experience and emotions as he grows up from nine-year-old Nigel in short trousers into a teenage orphan coming to London to start a cookery career at the Savoy.

It doesn’t always work to have grown men playing children but Giles Cooper doesn’t pretend to be nine years old, he concentrates on being Nigel who just happens to be nine and wearing short trousers, and he doesn’t attempt impersonation either. There are traits that reflect those of the real man but it's the boy on the stage we are watching, and the use of the real man’s own words that makes him the same personality.

His mother, whose activities are constrained by asthma, isn’t exactly queen of the kitchen. It is unlikely she ever produced even one slice of toast without burning it, though her readiness to make it for him helps their bonding. She’s a protection from his difficult and dogmatic father, helping hide Nigel’s inability to stomach eggs.

It’s a middle class family with pretensions (Dad’s a Mason), the idea of ketchup horrifies Mum but they are not ready for anything unfamiliar, though Dad does experiment with spaghetti Bolognese. Dad’s concerned that his son isn’t sporty and likes sweets that he thinks are girly. When he finds Nigel watching gardener Josh drying after a wash down, he gets a new gardener, but Nigel’s awakening sexuality is tactfully touched on when he is a little more grown up.

The production is not baldly naturalistic. Everything plays out in designer Libby Watson’s stylized family kitchen: very 1960s but with a giant fridge that acts as a doorway where units can be pushed into new configurations. Recipes are followed with a flourish of token gestures; just one vital dish is cooked in reality.

At times, the action is enlivened by contemporary pop songs and explores into dance, the mood mainly lively despite Mum’s illness and early death and Nigel’s ongoing confrontation with Joan who becomes her replacement.

Cooper’s Nigel at the centre seems completely natural as does Lizzie Muncey as Mum, though she has odd quirks of behaviour. So does also Doreen, his part-time employer (whom she also plays), and people like gardener Josh and Doreen’s dancer son (both Jake Ferretti) who befriend him. Those with whom he isn’t comfortable are seen through his eyes and are increasingly caricatured, with Dad (Stephen Ventura) only slightly, though it makes his violence less upsetting. With Marie Lawrence’s Joan it is stronger, though reduced as Nigel gives her more acceptance but the outsiders the cast also double as are drawn much more broadly, which makes it easier to erupt into Riordan’s camp choreography.

Though actual cooking is at a minimum, it is still an integral part of the story and Joan and Nigel’s competitive cake-making gives the audience an extra: platefuls of tasters handed out to them. Like these little meringues, Toast as a show is a pleaser. The traumas of childhood aren’t ignored, but the mood is generally upbeat.

Howard Loxton