Tuesday 19th November 2019 at York Theatre Royal.
Toast is a coming of age tale with plenty of heart and…food. If the old adage about food being the key to many a heart is true, then this play shows us that process – and not just the positives either. Nigel Slater’s tale of growing up offers pleasures and pains with both humour and great poignancy, shining a light on how transformative powerful experiences can be in those vital formative years and beyond.
Henry Filloux-Bennett’s writing transposes Slater’s book for the stage, taking the central threads and creating characters we can relate to, be entertained by and ultimately be quite in awe of. There’s plenty of comedy of various hues but it’s at its best when it’s bringing to light Nigel’s bottomless pit of naivety and childish takes on the world being discovered. From childhood cookery to sexual awakening, the play certainly takes us on a journey – which admittedly feels a little too fleeting and under-developed at times but remains unfailingly engaging nonetheless. Lovely too is the neat social history underlying the play which finds nostalgia and some comic gold as it navigates shifting attitudes towards food and cookery.
Giles Cooper takes centre stage as Nigel and narrates for much of the story – at nine years old, Nigel has plenty to say and he talks us through the day to day of his life at home with his parents with immeasurable youthful charm and thoroughly winning energy. Cooper has perfected the art of narrating as a precocious child; comically matter of fact, a tad obtuse and extremely optimistic. As we meet older versions of Nigel, the optimism deflates but the charm remains wonderfully intact.
Katy Federman offers up a warm and loving Mum – a character just shy of complete idealism who creates a cocoon not just for Nigel’s childhood but for our escapism needs as well. Federman and Cooper hook us in and surround us with their sweet connection. Blair Plant and Samantha Hopkins juggle comedy with villainy as Dad and Joan, resident irritators of our wee lad.
Plant makes the most of his quirky ensemble roles to offset his meaner moments as Dad. While Filloux-Bennett’s writing falls into the heavy handed stock clown character to an extent, Hopkins is fabulous and her comic drawl gets big laughs throughout. Stefan Edwards completes the cast as Josh, another comic gem who allows Nigel a rip-roaring social life beyond the kitchen he loves.
Jonnie Riordan’s direction and choreography are bold and nuanced, boasting a great eye for clarity of shifting tones. Most striking in this production is the stylish fluidity of the action. Libby Watson’s set designs offer a classic backdrop of a 60s kitchen and a variety of spinning set pieces which function to shift settings and to bring Jonnie Riordan’s inspired movement direction to life.
There’s a distinct and pervading sense of the pristine world of TV commercials of the 60s in the early scenes which is captured with real flair here. The tale unwoven before us has a constant buzz and the more devastating scenes are made all the more powerful for their jarring disruption to the whirling surrounding scenes – elements complimented beautifully by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s sound design and music and Zoe Spurr’s lighting designs.
Food naturally features heavily – when a show lists a ‘Food Director’ (James Thompson), you know the production means business in presenting the greatest influence on our central character. The smell of toast greets us in the auditorium. Various scents are pumped our way at intervals and the final scenes go so far as to cook a dish there and then, wafting the art of a real foodie to us as a parting incentive to go home and dig out the cook books.
Yet for all the emphasis on food, it’s obviously all bound up with the power of time spent bonding in the kitchen – the memories formed and treasured as we grow up. It’s undoubtedly a tale cloaked in a mist of idealism and sentiment but it also deals with darker themes and deeply sympathetic subject matter – cooking is a solace and a defiant stand for Nigel and in his vocation lies the love of a mother and the strength of a boy forced to grow up a little too soon. As far as life stories on stage go, this is lively, stylish and likely to give emotions a gentle shake up.
Toast is a production of The Lowry and is presented by PW Productions and Karl Sydow. It plays York Theatre Royal until November 23rd and you can find tickets here.