Nigel Slater‘s 2003 book Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger was converted into a stage play by Henry Filloux-Bennett in 2018 and is now halfway through a UK tour which runs until 7 December 2019 . This week it is at the wonderful Richmond Theatre (although the raised false stage set behind the proscenium arch looks designed for a smaller stage). Indeed this play which recreates Slater’s childhood and the development of his interest in food, may benefit from more intimate venues where you can smell more easily the on-stage cooking.
It wallows in nostalgia, which anyone now around Slater’s age (61) naturally enjoys, with memories of the sounds and tastes of their youth. We enjoy the making of jam tarts, the first meal of spaghetti bolognese (with Parmesan which tastes “like sick”), recall Angel Delight, see Mateus Rose wine and Turkish delight and remember the taste of refreshers and love hearts . This is accompanied by a sixties and seventies sound track including Alone Again (naturally) by Gilbert O’Sullivan (1971) and Psycho Killer by Talking Heads (1977).
At the centre of the play is Giles Cooper as the young Wolverhampton boy, Nigel is learning his love of food from a cook book by Marguerite Patten, from home cooking sessions with his mother and from the school cooking classes which seem to provide a sanctuary from school life. It is a charming, youthful performance but far too much of the time he is left standing centre stage with speeches of exposition which might have been lifted straight from the original book. He adores his mother beautifully played by Katy Federman, who is suffering from asthma and tragically dies and leaves him with his overbearing father (Blair Plant) with whom he has a troubled relationship. Although it is fun to watch them comically devour Walnut Whips, it feels like an inserted joke. When his father remarries his cleaner Joan (Samantha Hopkins) he competes with her through cooking for his attention. The fifth cast member, Stefan Edwards, has fun as the family gardener who helps Nigel grow his first veg, his best mate at school and his first love .
The director and choreographer Jonnie Riordan takes us on flights of fancy with dance sequences involving two or three kitchen cabinets, an odd quiz about childrens sweets and with four-cake-laden-trolleys. There are many delightful creative flourishes but they don’t make up for the lack of a strong script to explore Nigel’s relationships more fully. It is very sketchy, a cross between Saturday Kitchen and An Audience With…
There are moments when it works, like when the audience are drawn in to his passion for food by the handing out of flapjacks and sweets (although the subsequent rustling of bags for five minutes after is irritating) and the wonderful sequence when he cooks mushrooms on stage and the auditorium fills with the smell. But the show promised more than this and failed to live up to that recreation of the “tastes and smells ” of his youth – too often we get “here’s one I made earlier “. If only we could have smelt the burnt toast of the title or felt the “cold bendy” hotel toast he loves, we might have bought in more to the idea that “what we eat is incredibly important ” and not just an excuse for a joke or dance.
Reviewed by Nick Wayne
Photo: Piers Foley
FOLLOW WEST END WILMA