Henry Filloux-Bennett, based on the autobiography by Nigel Slater
P W Productions and Karl Sydow present The Lowry Production
Lowry Quays Theatre
11 November 2019 - 16 November 2019; 2hr 20min
Back for another taster at the theatre where it first rose like a successful souffle 18 months ago, Nigel Slater’s Toast is an unusual mix for a theatrical evening. Ingeniously adapted from Observer food writer Slater’s autobiography by first-time playwright Henry Filloux-Bennett, it narrates the difficult and distressing childhood of Nigel (Giles Cooper) in the West Midlands of the 1960s.
Following him age 9 to 17, covering the early death of his mother (Kay Felderman) and then his highly-strained relationship with his grieving father (Blair Plant), it shows Nigel developing a growing fixation with the pleasures of everyday foods, including Angel Delight, fish fingers and lots and lots of cakes.
It begins with him as a young boy, making jam tarts with mum, and there’s a bitter-sweet first half in which his love for his mother movingly shines through. After the interval, his domineering and grieving father quite quickly links up with, as here portrayed, a woman (Samantha Hopkins) who becomes Nigel’s almost pantomime-like step-mother, with whom he has a battle of the cakes.
Meanwhile, dad tries to stop Nigel buying fairy drops, as some sweets are for boys and some for girls and fairy drops are definitely for the latter or, perhaps, “nancy boys” - a sentiment pointing towards what is to come for Nigel.
Stylistically it’s an odd mix that I found doesn’t entirely work. Nigel/Cooper narrates, heading the five-strong cast with a performance that is the right side of not being desperate to appeal. We meet him first kitted out in long socks and slickly-combed hair, looking like a typical mid-20th century schoolboy but one taking an unusual interest in school cookery classes.
As he grows up and matures into a teenager, the play becomes a little darker, with Nigel timidly coming out as gay. But I found throughout that deeper emotions are quickly eroded by the show’s format of introducing musical/movement/dance episodes and having a performance style somewhere between cartoon and the sort of heightened characterisation you get between the numbers in a musical. I would have liked more depth. I know it would have been boring to play it all straight, but for me the present mix doesn’t pull it off.
Director Jonnie Riordan’s production is suitably lightly whisked, taking place on a kitchen set that has nostalgic 60s touches. The audience gets to share bags of sweets and you’ll also get a walnut whip and it ends with Nigel cooking up mushroom and onions on toast as a homage to his mother.
As the smell wafts across the auditorium it could well send you out seeking the nearest take-away.