In the past I’ve sat a few rows away from Stephen Sondheim at a performance of Follies. Sat two seats away from Leslie Bricusse watching The Roar Of The Greasepaint, The Smell Of The Crowd and sat a few seats away from Stephen Schwartz watching Pippin. I’ve probably sat in a theatre with the author of a play I was watching but can’t be certain of that. However last night was the first time I’ve ever sat directly behind one of the real-life characters being portrayed on stage – and not just one of the characters but the main one, because I was sitting behind Nigel Slater watching an actor being him in Toast. In fact, he’s so important that the full title of the play is Nigel Slater’s Toast. He seemed to be loving what he was watching as was the rest of the audience and me.
Toast tells the story of Nigel and his family from the age of nine to nineteen. We first see him in his school uniform with short trousers in his mother’s kitchen cooking using a recipe from a cookbook by Marguerite Patten, one of the few you could buy back in the sixties when Nigel was growing up. It turns out that his mother isn’t the best cook in the world, but she tries her best and that’s good enough for young Nigel. We then meet his father who’s very domineering and controlling and the very opposite of his mother. He even stops Nigel buying fairy drops as there are certain sweets for boys and certain sweets for girls and fairy drops are definitely for girls – or as his father tells him they’re also for “nancy boys” – a hint of what is to come for Nigel.
Toast is basically a love letter from Nigel to his slightly ditsy, asthmatic mum especially in the first act. As he says “It’s impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you,” even though she invariably burns it and Nigel has never had butter without black bits in it! The play takes a slightly darker tone in the second act as Nigel grows up and matures through puberty into a teenager, eventually coming out as not only gay but a superb cook. Along the way we meet various characters such as a hunky gardener, Nigel’s spotty schoolfriends (in a superb “Top Of The Form” pastiche), cooks and waiters, all superbly played by the cast.
The piece is brilliantly directed by Jonnie Riordan who also choreographs the cast as they nimbly bring on props, change basic ingredients into cakes almost by magic and fluidly move scenery into place practically dancing their way on and off stage. The set design by Libby Watson evokes a kitchen of the period and Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s sound design adds another layer of atmosphere to the piece. There’s also superb use of music within the play starting with Carole King’s “I Feel The Earth Move” and utilising songs from Dusty Springfield and other singers of the period. There’s also extensive use of Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” (that’s not a spoiler alert)!
There’s meta-theatre at times and the cast not only break the fourth wall but after Nigel visits a sweet shop, sweets are passed around the audience (I got a Black Jack and a toffee) and it’s probably the first time in theatrical history that the noisy rustle of sweets being unwrapped wasn’t frowned upon but actively encouraged! There were lots of enthusiastic oohs and ahhs of nostalgia from those who could remember Angel Delight, Mateus Rosé and parma violets.
Writer Henry Filloux-Bennett who adapted Slater’s book has captured the period superbly and also the pangs of a young man who’s unsure of his sexuality and where life is going to lead him.
All the performances were excellent with Giles Cooper as Nigel holding everything together narrating what’s going on in his turbulent life, and in his head. Katy Federman is wonderful as Mum giving her an air of someone who means well but is just a bit scatter-brained. Blair Plant is excellent as Dad who really doesn’t understand a son who doesn’t want to kick a ball around and prefers cooking. Samantha Hopkins and Stefan Edward are both superb as a variety of characters who pass through and interact with Nigel’s life.
The play ends with Nigel cooking up mushrooms on toast as an homage to his Mum. But this isn’t stage cooking – this is real cooking and the audience is soon salivating at the smell of mushrooms cooked in garlic wafting into the stalls.
Toast is a lovely piece of theatrical nostalgia as it tours the country this autumn, it’s well worth a visit – especially if you remember the joy of Angel Delight and Mateus Rosé.
Review by Alan Fitter
Toast vividly recreates Nigel Slater’s childhood through the tastes and smells he shares with his mother, culminating in the young Nigel’s escape to London.
From making the perfect sherry trifle, through the playground politics of sweets, the rigid rules of restaurant dining, and a domestic war over cakes, this is a moving and evocative tale of love, loss and… toast.
Little Green, Richmond, TW9 1QJ
Run Time: 2 hr 10 – including interval
Run Dates: Monday 21 – Saturday 26 October 2019
Book Tickets for Richmond Theatre