The memories we have of our childhoods are often light and incomplete, we hold-on to emotional responses, particularly good or bad moments like the endless and warm days of summer, holidays by the seaside, snowy Christmases that probably never happened, and perhaps the odd school-based humiliation. But, with our (then) limited knowledge of the adult world, the truth of those years is somewhat more elusive, the struggles of our parents, the political and cultural experience of the times and any sense of danger or national change happening around us. Instead, childhood, for most of us, always seems like a golden age until suddenly it’s not.
There comes a point in every childhood where everything changes, for most people its during their teenage years but often for terrible reasons some experience a lurch into the adult world far sooner than they expected. Chef Nigel Slater knew that better than most when his beloved mother died on Christmas morning when he was just 10-years old. His 2003 bestselling memoir Toast recounts the circumstances before and after that crucial moment as young Nigel inherits a passion for cooking in a seemingly perfect 50s kitchen before that fateful festive period. Exploring the world of the Slater family in Wolverhampton through the food that they shared, the memoir has been dramatised by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Jonnie Riordan. It debuted on The Lowry stage in Salford and later the Edinburgh Festival last year, before receiving a London transfer to The Other Palace where it officially opens tomorrow. Smartly adapted by Filloux-Bennett, this is a show that will warm you through without disguising its darker flavours, a satisfying and hearty concoction that sees the world through the eyes of a child.
Told almost entirely from Nigel’s perspective – and he actively chides his father for trying to muscle in on narrative duties – Toast is a delightful meta-theatrical experience in which the audience is not only asked to understand the world of its characters and their differing perspectives, there is also the chance to eat along without leaving your seat. A multisensory production, in the first Act bags of sweets are distributed around the audience, followed by Walnut Whips during the interval to save for an important scene in Act Two, and later trays of mini-Lemon Meringue Pies.
It’s a delicious surprise that certainly adds an additional dimension to the experience, and don’t worry if you’re seated at the back, the cast and diligent ushers do their best to ensure everyone receives some free goodies in a well-executed piece of audience engagement. Yet, in medium-sized venue like The Other Palace it does have its drawbacks; if you’re annoyed generally by the crinkling of sweet wrappers in the theatre, the ripple effect of the first handout may be frustrating as it last for the next 15-20 minutes of the show.
And while we get to enjoy tastes along with the characters, it equally pulls the audience temporarily out of the story while they await food items to be passed along the row to them. The time taken to settle back down encroaches on the often more emotional scene that follows, and closer to the back of the room, it can be harder to hear over the uniform rustling of wrappers and conversational exchanges between neighbours rooting-out the sweets they want. Even in the second Act, Walnut Whips already in hand, lots of people are waiting for the appropriate scene to eat it, giving rise to an audible relief when it eventually occurs. It is a smart and lovely idea but there are consequences for audience concentration and the flow of the ensuing story.
Nonetheless, what stands out in the sensitive retelling of this tragic memoir is the imaginative technical solutions to how content is presented and the smoothly management of scene changes. Designer Libby Watson has created an idealised 50s world of pale-yellow perfection. Anyone who has seen Laura Wade’s Olivier Award-winning Home, I’m Darling, will recognise the themes Watson draws upon – utility, grace and finesse – in which culinary objects have their place, everything is sparkling clean and beautifully appointed.
A number of moveable cabinets on castors, as well as rapidly removed furniture allow Riordan to move swiftly between a series of locations including Nigel’s school, restaurants, two different homes and eventually a side alley of The Savoy. As choreographer as well as director, Riordan uses movement to underscore poignant moments and to suggest the passing of time, with a counter-top waltz between mother and son meaningfully handled, as well as second wife Joan’s domestic domination told through a montage of vacuum and polishing actions set to music and sound effects.
There are musical theatre qualities to this approach that work extremely well here while also emphasising the difference between childhood fantasy and adult reality that runs through the story. But they never distract from Toast’s darker moments, in fact they deepen them. Music has the same effect and while Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s selection of 50s tunes played throughout the show as well as during the interval are a nostalgic treat, their inclusion is equally designed to pull at Nigel’s consciously created fantasy childhood, one that splits apart as the truth slowly dawns in his teenage years, at which point the music choices take on a harder quality in the final third of the show.
The Slater household is never flashy, but always homely, a welcoming upper-working class / lower middle-class vision bolstered by the idea of the perfect housewife running the home immaculately while her husband works. As with Wade’s play, that image is not quite right and as the story unfolds Filloux-Bennett cleverly explores the differences between Nigel’s narration and the adult reality from which he was largely shielded. As his mum’s illness becomes more serious, it’s clear to the audience that 10-year old Nigel has no idea what was about to happen. Later, when his dad takes a second wife, Nigel is at first bemused to be at a dinner he doesn’t realise was a date, leading-in to Joan becoming what he thinks is the cleaner. Nigel’s induction into the complexities of adult relationships is carefully managed in Act Two, slowly building as Nigel finds himself in unexpected competition not just with Joan (a very funny Marie Lawrence playing a woman so clearly insecure she needs to best a teenage boy) over baking prowess, but also with his father whose brusqueness with his son stems from his own grief, finding himself in the unexpected role as widower and single father, causing eruptions of violence or threats that shatters Nigel’s formal but respected view of him.
Giles Cooper’s Nigel is an excellent narrator and although Cooper plays his protagonist between the ages of 10 and 17, he wisely chooses not to stretch the childlike characterisation too far. In a way, this acts as a reminder that it is the adult Nigel who is the conduit for this story, remembering events from many decades distance, but it also feels appropriate in the context of the story. Riordan doesn’t want us to be distracted by how well Cooper can ‘act’ these ages, but to focus on the rite of passage that Slater’s tragedy set in motion, something which Cooper manages extremely well.
There is, in his performance, an unyielding adoration for his mother that dominates the first half of the play as they enjoy happy family moments baking, shopping and even holidaying together. Their closeness and Nigel’s contentment are well conveyed, making the circumstantial switch in Act Two all the more affecting. And here Cooper is even better as Nigel recognises the extent to which his mother shielded him from the darker side of his father, the competitiveness of other people and the nuances of adult life, a knowledge forced on him by the collapse of his homelife and his father’s focus on his new wife at the expense of his scared and uncertain son. Most of all, Cooper shows how Nigel clings to the ideals his mother instilled in him, developing a strength that eventually leads him to the doorstep of a famous London hotel and the life to come.
Having Lizzie Muncy play Nigel’s mum and a number of other important female characters including his Home Economics teacher and the woman who gives him his first job in a Wolverhampton hotel kitchen is a shrewd move. It not only means a cast of just five can perform the entire play, but it suggests a certain maternal consistency to the women who set Nigel, accidentally or purposefully, on his path to future culinary fame. Muncy draws out the protective sweetness of Mum which makes Nigel’s devotion so credible, while Stephen Ventura’s Dad manages to convey the difficulty of his own position as a 50s man trying to meet social expectations of masculinity. Through his funny rules and lists (including the gender-appropriateness of particular sweets), we see that he is unable to properly express his deeper emotions and needs. The distance with Nigel because increasingly antagonistic as Ventura subtly suggests Dad’s inability to manage his own grief and loneliness.
This cleverly staged memoir well captures the moment at which childhood ends and the more difficult transition to adult life begins while using its food-theme to build a sense of the professional Nigel Slater was to become. Free food or not, Toast is a charming two hours in the theatre that carefully presents an idealised picture of 50s life and then cuts through to its harder reality. Honest and inventive, the range of narrative and staging techniques used in Toast impressively create a highly entertaining exploration of memory and meaning.