The Other Palace, London – until 3 August 2019
Is duck poultry or game? This is one of many questions troubling young Nigel Slater on his journey from nine-year-old, Wolverhampton jam-tart maker to one of the country’s top chefs. His memoir, Toast – the story of a boy’s hunger, has been adapted for a mouth-watering run at London’s The Other Palace. and it is a gastronomic beanfeast.
Nigel Slater’s Toast, not to be confused with Richard Bean’s 1999 stage comedy, Toast, is elegiac, emotional and evocative. It is also a paean to his youth – his first taste of exotic food (spag bol drowning in dried Parmesan that smelt of vomit), bucket and spade holidays to Bournemouth, Love Hearts, domestic science lessons and Walnut Whips.
Adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett, the piece puts young Slater centre stage to act as narrator, recalling his life from nine to 17. It takes the audience from his burgeoning interest in cooking, gleaned from helping out his beloved mother and reading Marguerite Patten’s Cookery In Colour, to landing a job in the kitchens of the Savoy.
And, to get theatre-goers in the mood, the production is accompanied by goodies – bags of sweets, delicious mini lemon meringue pies, and Walnut Whips – handed out by the cast.
Full marks to the production team. The pie was gorgeous, just the right amount of tart from the lemon filling, while revisiting a Walnut Whip transported me straight back to my childhood.
But being bribed with a bag of pic‘n’mix does mean that this relaxed and enjoyable production plays to the continuous rustle of sweeties being unwrapped.
Giles Cooper captures the innocence and naivety of a young Nigel in the first act while displaying the surliness and confusion of a trouble teen in the second. The production is a two-course affair. As entrée, we tuck into an easy-to-digest hour, laughing at Nigel’s idyllic childhood with his mother.
Nigel finds comfort making tarts, shopping with his increasingly sickly mum and playing with his best friend Worrell. His relationship with his stuffy, remote and disappointed father, is strained and awkward. The mains, post-interval, are a different kettle of fish.
Laughs are in shorter supply as Nigel and his father adjust to life on their own and, some for time – until dad immerses himself in The Freemasons and the charms of Joan Potter – it’s not easy.
Cooper, clearly not a child or even a teenager, is, nonetheless, a winsome and engaging narrator, offering a soupçon of dry wit to a bittersweet coming of age story.
Jonnie Riordan’s direction is kept as light as a souffle. There’s a simple, almost a comic-book recipe for the story-telling, from the stylised kitchen set and women’s costumes, to the extras who slip on with dishes that were ‘made earlier’.
But I suppose childhood reminiscences always seem more colourful and larger than life, whether it’s remembering one’s first culinary experience or that initial foray into sex.
There are haute cuisine performances from Lizzie Muncey and Stephen Ventura as Nigel’s very traditional, old fashioned parents.
Marie Lawrence is a treat as the common-as-muck, social climbing Joan with her exaggerated accent, competitive pie making and steely determination.
And Jake Ferreti offers top support, playing everything from the gardener to a ballet dancer.
Filloux-Bennett serves up a winning and nostalgic adaptation that is both heartbreaking, poignant, joyous and funny.
Young Nigel closes one chapter in his life by cooking up mushrooms on toast, the theatre fragrant with the luscious aroma of garlic. Here’s a play about growing up that pleases all the senses.
Nigel Slater’s Toast runs at The Other Palace until August 3.
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