The Other Palace, London – until 3 August 2019
“You put the grill on high, and the bread under it. Turn it over half-way through. And then you take it out and scrape it.” That extract from my eight-year-old school essay could just as easily have come from the book and script of Toast, a delightful and fond depiction of food writer Nigel Slater’s formative years.
Before the advent of the pop-up toaster my mother, who had been a sergeant-major in the army and hated the kitchen with a passion, almost never managed to serve any that wasn’t carboniferous, and for years I also never saw a dish of butter without black bits in it.
So I’m naturally predisposed to like Toast, and to identify with Giles Cooper’s endearingly naive nine-year-old Nigel and his relationships with a loving mother and a distant dad, and eventually his shy seed-spilling observation of a hunky gardener.
Not that we ever had a gardener, but I did have the early hots for the lad in the dirty jerkin who delivered our coal.
Toast tracks the childhood and teenage years of its protagonist, and does so with a larky soundtrack of sixties and seventies pop which was the sort of thing I might have heard had we owned a record player. In fact, apart from the theme tune to ‘Listen With Mother’ I didn’t know music came out of the radio until I was 12. It’s briskly choreographed by Jonnie Riordan with routines which require the actors to park their characters and behave like bobby soxers.
It’s definitely entertaining, but it suggests Toast doesn’t really know which side it’s buttered – family tragicomedy, or cartoonish jukebox. Lizzie Muncey’s bravely ailing mum is a lovely, studied performance, and Stephen Ventura’s dad coldly realistic, while Marie Lawrence as cleaner-turned-stepmum ‘Aunty Joan’ has both the moves and the menace of the sixties femme fatale.
The meta-theatrical mash-ups of memory and reality, young Nigel’s misinterpretations of parental behaviour and some fourth-wall breaking give him the air of an Adrian Mole, but Henry Filloux-Bennett’s writing, and Slater’s source material, elevate it beyond the mundane.
Like toast itself, though, it’s comfort eating but not quite sustenance enough for an entire evening. There are moments when the pace is slack, and while it’s nice to share in the Proustian food memories, having to deliver the ‘sweet treats’ of penny chews or miniature lemon meringue tartlets to an entire audience takes a while.
And my dad did that thing with the Walnut Whip too. I’d forgotten how disgusting it was.
until 3 August