Reviewed by Kathryn Harrison
Nigel Slater is well known as one of Britain’s most loved food writers, his many books, newspaper columns and TV shows inspiring the nation. In 2004 Toast was published, a collection of Nigel’s memories of his childhood framed by food. In May 2018 the stage production of Toast made its world debut at The Lowry, now, 18 months later Toast has returned to The Lowry for a week’s run. I LOVE Nigel Slater, I was given his book, Real Food, as a Christmas present a number of years ago and from the moment I saw whole chapters dedicated to cheese, potatoes and garlic I knew I had found a kindred spirit. Since then I have read most of his books and watched all his TV shows. I really enjoyed reading Toast, but I was dubious as to how this collection of essays could be transferred to the stage.
As we entered the foyer the smell of toast permeated the air (Is there any better smell?). This entrance set the tone for this interactive food love story. Toast starts when Nigel is just nine, in his typical 1960’s house with his loving mum making jam tarts. Nigel speaks directly to the audience including us in the narrative as he tells the story of his childhood. As the only cast member to play just one character Giles Cooper is brilliant as Nigel, he manages to portray a child, a young adolescent and a near adult seamlessly as we watch Nigel grow on stage. There are only four other cast members and they all play numerous characters during the performance whilst maintaining a central character.
Young Nigel lives a seemingly idyllic life at home with his mum and dad, lots of time spent cooking with his doting and attentive mum, discovering new culinary horizons through his dad, including a rather disastrous introduction to Spaghetti Bolognese and planting radishes with Josh the gardener, played by Stefan Edwards. Katy Federman primarily plays Mum, she was wonderful at showing the love mum had for Nigel as well as her unspoken worries for his future as her chronic asthma worsens. Blair Plant plays Dad, he showed us the transition from a happy, loving father, albeit with some rather particular rules and opinions to a man drowning in grief after the death of his wife and disappointment that his son isn’t growing into the man he imagined him to be. There is one particularly harrowing scene involving Nigel and Dad that showcased both these actors’ abilities to demonstrate a range of emotions.
After the death of Nigel’s beloved mum, Dad finds comfort in Joan who later becomes Nigel’s stepmother. Nigel and Joan clearly do not like one another. Samantha Hopkins who plays Joan not only shows the disdain that Joan has towards Nigel and their turbulent relationship but manages to do so in a highly comical way. This play deals with highly emotive issues including death, homophobia, violence and dysfunctional family issues but at no point does it feel too heavy. The drama is counteracted by lots of humour and frivolity mainly in the form of music and dance, the dancing and choreography at times is so hilariously over the top you feel like a child giggling away.
I thought the production of this play was done very cleverly, a lot of our enjoyment of food is obviously through taste and smell, these are elements that are hard to convey in a theatre environment but the production team found ways around this, managing to include the audience in a very tactile way. I really enjoyed this play, it was hilarious, poignant, hopeful sensitive and harrowing all at the same time. The play had me in tears numerous times both in sadness and laughter and I’ll never be able to look at a Walnut Whip in the same way again! One not to be missed for anyone who loves food.
Tickets cost from £21.50 (booking fees may apply).
Nigel Slater’s Toast is at The Lowry in Manchester from 11-16 November 2019, for more information or to book tickets visit www.thelowry.com or call the box office on 0843 208 6000.
The Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays, Manchester, M50 3AZ | 0843 208 6000