Review by Nigel Smith
NIGEL Slater’s biographical novel Toast is a delightful read, and the writing is so evocative that the tastes and smells of his childhood almost waft up from the page. This adaptation by Henry Filloux-Bennett distils the text into a manageable length for the stage and brings these sensory experiences very vividly to life.
Your nose does not deceive you. The smell that greets us as we enter the auditorium is of burnt toast, an aroma that apparently suffused every breakfast time in Nigel’s childhood. There’s a picture book nostalgia in the deceptively simple stage set by Libby Watson, taking us straight back to the 1960s, and this nostalgia seeps out of the storytelling too.
Giles Cooper is the young Nigel, and he takes us through the highs and lows of his formative years in a series of flashbacks, that appear as though we are seeing them directly through his memory. Cooper has a gleeful charm as his narration takes us from scene to scene, and he really captures many of the facial mannerisms of Slater himself, who was watching from the centre stalls on press night.
There is something disarming about the way this sort of storytelling uses familiar tastes and smells to give us a sense of living in Nigel’s world. A good illustration is the walnut whip that we are all armed with on taking our seats for the second act. This comes with a strict instruction not to open it until we’re told, and the collective act of biting off the top and licking out the filling along with the actors onstage is undeniably an immersive experience.
The story takes us through the sad loss of Slater’s mother – she who could never make a slice of toast without burning it – to the arrival of his domineering stepmother and beyond. There are glimpses into his sexual awakening mixed in amongst the comforting world of homely food that seems to be what keeps him grounded. Further family tragedy finally releases Nigel from the last ties binding him to Wolverhampton, freeing him to out seek a new life in the kitchens of London.
The play was originally produced in May 2018 at the Lowry, commissioned as part of their Coming of Age festival. This touring version has a new cast who have made the roles their own, although it appears to have been lightly edited, which to an extent strips away some of the most touching aspects of the story. Nonetheless it remains an evocative piece of very personal insight.
Nigel lifts a pristine slice of toast and examines it closely before topping it with freshly cooked garlic mushrooms, prepared in his signature manner of experimentation. I am told that the aroma of garlic from the stage wafted all the way to the back of the gallery, finally subduing the smell of burning.
Toast is at the Playhouse until 14th September and continues touring until December.