Following a standout run at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Nigel Slater’s Toast makes its London debut at The Other Palace. With palma violets, lemon meringue pies and a dash of nostalgia, although the play may not be an entirely slick affair, this can be forgiven for the warmth and energy radiating from the stage.
As you walk into the foyer, the smell of burnt toast lingers in the air, a hint of the sensory treats laid ahead for the audience. Years ago I saw a production of Saturday, Sunday… and Monday and still vividly remember the smell of Italian cuisine wafting through the auditorium. It was reminiscent of this, but sadly the smell of toast stopped at the door on this occasion.
The play itself is based on Nigel Slater’s bestselling memoir Toast about his discovery of the joy of food in his childhood. Told entirely first hand from Nigel’s point of view, Giles Cooper deftly plays the young boy despite being about twenty years older than the character he is portraying. At first I thought it would be jarring to see Cooper playing to a mother who looked younger than him but this was quickly forgotten.
Nigel’s mum was useless at cooking and yet she managed to instill a love of baking (and cooking more generally) that led him to become one of Britain’s best-known food writers. The first act beautifully charts Nigel’s relationship with his mother, performed superbly by the brilliant Lizzie Muncey. Her love for her son spills from the stage and sets a joyous tone for the entire evening, even in some of the darker scenes.
One such moment was Slater’s fractious relationship with his father hitting home when he beats his son in a moment of fury in the corner of the kitchen. Simple but effective, it’s hard to tell if the extra frisson of concern was because I knew I was sat two rows behind the real Nigel witnessing his own abuse.
The set itself was a simple 1960s-styled kitchen with an Aga in the corner, a Smeg-style fridge, and cupboards lining the upstage walls. Countertops would be wheeled to and from centre stage as required, various props appearing and disappearing through various doors. My hopes of the smells of live cooking on stage were quickly dashed when the jam tarts being made in the opening scenes were quickly replaced with ones they’d made earlier, a trick used throughout the show, often to comic effect.
That’s not to say that food isn’t integral to the director’s vision. Following a brilliant choreographed scene involving bags of pick & mix, the cast ventured into the aisles to share with the audience. While this was a nice touch, the subsequent rustling of sweet wrappers left the poignancy of the following scene underwhelming. Similarly during a scene where Nigel and his stepmother Joan battle to produce the best lemon meringue pie to win his dad’s heart, the cast offered up miniature versions to us. As much as I love sweet treats and free food, these moments were an unnecessary gimmick.
Jonnie Riordan’s choreography is fantastically enjoyable. Although these set pieces don’t always quite sit comfortably alongside the rest of his direction, it was very clear that he has a particular style and vision for the production which on the whole works strikingly well.
The five-piece cast are outstanding, with Marie Lawrence and Jake Ferretti each playing multiple roles deserving particular attention and praise. While Cooper fumbles his lines a few times, he carries the show from beginning to end, maturing before our eyes over the evening from nine-year-old boy to a seventeen-year-old young man getting a job in the Christmas kitchen of the Savoy.
Despite a few press night mishaps (including a mixing bowl being unintentionally knocked to the floor during the play’s opening line), Nigel Slater’s Toast is a warm crowd-pleaser of a show, passionately baked and dished up with aplomb.