WARM, WITH SOME BITE, BUT SOGGY ROUND THE EDGES
Toast, an adaptation of Nigel Slater’s autographical book, always faced a major challenge; how do you dramatize a book that ‘contains no unusually dramatic episodes’ – as The Guardian put it back in 2003. As the play’s writer, Henry Filloux-Bennett, also points out (in the programme notes), there is an additional problem: the book’s narrative is ‘broken up into about one hundred memories, tastes, smells and stories.’ Filloux-Bennett responds to that challenge by using Slater, played with childish relish by Giles Cooper, as a narrator who tells the audience what is happening and what he thinks about it.
This technique has some benefits. It enables Cooper to build a rapport with his audience and creates opportunities for comedy when the cast makes reference to the young Slater’s predilection for talking to a mysterious ‘someone’ about his life. It also enables us to understand the very deep emotional bond between Slater and his beloved mother – a woman who is far from the Domestic Goddess, Nigella Lawson, (one of the many celebrities present at the press night). Nevertheless, his mother inspires affection for the way she loves her son. And it is this central relationship that rescues the play from being a hotch-potch of memories. Played with a combination of great warmth and fragility by Lizzie Muncey, Slater’s mother (suffering from asthma that will eventually kill her) plays a considerable part in sustaining the young Nigel’s interest in food. This is particularly important in the face of the antipathy to cooking shown by his Dad (played by Stephen Ventura) – he sees it as a pastime for ‘nancy-boys’. Having said that, his father’s fear that his boy is becoming too feminized creates some of the funnier moments in the play – such as Dad’s rules about which sweets should be eaten by girls and which by boys, and his horror when he discovers that the gardener may be gay and a local boy is a ballet dancer.
Nostalgia also plays a large part in this production. Designed by Libby Watson, the set is all beige flowers and Formica surfaces: very familiar to audience members of a certain age. Yet her decision to make the kitchen units mobile allows them to be used as a metaphor for the changing domestic circumstances facing young Nigel – as mother dies, father remarries and then also dies unexpectedly. A gentle dance between Nigel and his mother atop these movable units (on the eve of her death) is genuinely moving – literally, emotionally, and figuratively. There are also regular references to the food of the period and the audience gets to share in some of these treats – much to the delight of many audience members who seemed to appreciate their Refreshers and Walnut Whips.
Ultimately, whilst this was an enjoyable evening, the major issue is that Filloux-Bennett doesn’t wholly manage to solve the problem of a story that lacks real drama. The technique of using a narrator robs the characters of much of their own internal life, and the action zigzags back and forth between light drama, straight narration, dance numbers with an Am-Dram quality, and comedy. But lovers of Nigel Slater will find much to their taste in this likeable production, which runs from April until August 2019.