Lawrence Batley Theatre Nigel Slater's Toast (animation by Dusthouse)
Following their recent online audio experiment with The Understudy, the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield have repeated their success by adapting Nigel Slater’s book Toast. Or more accurately they have adapted Henry Filloux- Bennett’s play of the memoir which was touring the country last year to popular acclaim. Despite some desperately sad moments it is a real comfort blanket of a play drenched in nostalgia for the foodstuffs of childhood such as butterscotch Angel Delight. However, be warned, you may never look at a Walnut Whip in quite the same way again.
On the face of it the young Nigel had a pretty idyllic childhood growing up as an only child in a middle-class Wolverhampton suburb. He evidently gets his love of cooking and ingredients from his doting mother and we first encounter them making jam tarts together. His father seems to be rather more of an enigma with strange notions about which are the appropriate sweets for girls and which for boys and a whole set of rules and regulations to be employed when the family are eating out; there seems to be particular opprobrium reserved for manufactured bottled sauces. Incidents of food mishaps appear frequently in the narrative – eating copious amounts of green strawberries leads to a rather rapid return of said items. Like any child there is one thing that he just won’t eat; perhaps strangely for a cook, this is eggs.
Nevertheless, in the main we are treated to the comforting nostalgia of sunny days in the garden as the young boy cultivates radishes, holidays in Bournemouth and the family’s Christmas preparations it is a world centred on food and its consumption. Then tragedy strikes the family and for a while Slater and his father are thrown on their own resources. At this point enter cleaner Joan who is also a dab hand at cooking. She and the adolescent Nigel enter into an unspoken food competition to win over Mr Slater and thus the young cook’s enthusiasm for all things gastronomic is fired. He finds huge interest in cookery at school and eventually takes up employment in a local hotel kitchen all the while refining his techniques and improving his skills. Meanwhile he also discovers his own sexual identity and how best to eat a Walnut Whip – in a nod to interactive theatre you are invited to consume one yourself in similar fashion.
Sounding uncannily like the cookery writer himself, Giles Cooper survives from the stage version to play Slater from young childhood up to the moment when at 17 he decamps to London to learn his trade in the kitchens of the Savoy. Cooper captures the particular timbre and inflections of Slater’s honeyed, slightly camp tones and manages to totally convince us that he is an earlier incarnation of the older man. Lizzie Muncey makes the ideal sounding mum and the exaggerated brogue of Marie Lawrence as Joan provides a nice contrast. Stephen Ventura and Jake Ferretti play the men in Slater’s life. In the stage version the four supporting actors all took on other minor role and I assume that is what is happening here, though the credits at the end do not specify.
The sound design by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is clear and appropriately focused so that we can hear the kitchen utensils being used; there are some delightful reminders of adverts from yesteryear during the interval. As with The Understudy the piece is presented as a slightly strange hybrid of an audio play with illustrated visuals. Last time round I felt I could take this innovation or leave it but in Toast I felt it made more of a positive contribution to the ambience. Periodically lists of ingredients flash up on screen and it is good to see the food that is being talked about just as one would see it in a recipe book. Kudos then to Dean and Mark Kendrick for making this aspect such an integral feature. It is just a shame that we couldn’t indulge ourselves (as happened in the live theatre version) in the smells and tastes of the many goodies on offer. The play is directed by Jonnie Riordan with no particular sense of urgency which is entirely appropriate for the subject matter – this is a long slow braised casserole of a play rather than a quick snack of beans on toast.
Nigel Slater. Photo: Jenny Zarins