Nigel Slater’s Toast is a heart-wrenching and superbly performed piece of theatre. Directed by Jonnie Riordan and adapted from Slater’s memoir by Henry Filloux-Bennett, Toast follows Nigel’s recollections of his childhood and coming of age through the medium of food and assorted senses of taste, smell and touch.
It would be giving away too much of the plot to write a full synopsis, but safe to say that Toast is a tragic comedy that wears its heart on its sleeve. The young Nigel (played here endearingly by Giles Cooper) has a self-consciously idyllic childhood, enjoying all the culinary staples of British life in the 1960’s, including helping his mother (Katy Federman) with her traditional baking, as well as trying duck a l’orange for the first time and his father’s (Blair Plant) absurd rules about which sweets are and are not appropriately masculine (parma violets, no; gobstoppers, yes).
However, that idyll is slowly but inevitably shattered, and the world of Nigel’s youth is lost forever. Living in the shadow of his tragedy during his young manhood, and in domestic circumstances that only serve to underline the ugliness and desperation of his family life, Nigel has to forge a new path out of the one gift he still carries with him: his passion for food.
On a technical level, everything about Toast is superb. The performances by each of the actors is not only engaging but moving, with most of the cast multi-rolling different parts with no loss of illusion. Giles Cooper does especially well to portray a child’s enthusiasm for basic foodstuffs, as well as the loss of Nigel’s innocence and transition to a more determined and worldly young man. Likewise, Blair Plant (Nigel’s dad) does very well to inhabit a character that is at once both unlikeable and sympathetic, when his fragile masculinity and inability to process his own emotions serve to highlight what a tragic and pitiful figure he is. Katy Federman, Samantha Hopkins and Stefan Edwards all perform with great dexterity and no two of their well-defined characters are alike. Federman, in particular, gives a sensitive and well-realised performance as Nigel’s mother.
Similarly, the production makes wonderfully effective use of music and dance, with contemporary music incorporated into the performance to lend a feel of authenticity that will delight fans of late 1960s and early 1970s pop. The movement choreography is first rate and enhances rather than distracts from the play’s emotional stakes, particularly the very moving scene where Nigel’s mother teaches him how to dance.
Moreover, the costumes, set design, and lighting all serve to make the transitions from scene to scene and the movement from one period to another in the main character’s life appear both definable and seamless, which is a very tricky task. The most interesting part of the production, however, is the engagement with the audience through handing out sweets and the wafting smell of cooking on stage; Burnt toast fills the auditorium on arrival! This takes audience engagement to another level and is something that should be applauded.
Overall, Toast is an intense but entertaining journey into the past, one that will delight and break your heart in equal measure.
Reviewer: Amanda Hodgson
Reviewed: 19th November 2019
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★