18 September 2019

Toast - Northern Stage

I read cook and food writer Nigel Slater's well-loved memoir Toast when it came out years ago, and despite not being able to remember much of the story, I definitely remembered the warm, cosy feeling it left me with and the way that he brings food to life on the page.

The stage production did all of that and more, with the excellent Giles Cooper playing Nigel who compellingly tells the story of his childhood through food, which went from idyllic (his love of cooking stems from cooking with his mother) to tragic (she suffered from bad asthma - her decline is portrayed tenderly by Katy Federman).

Toast Northern Stage
A mother's love - Mum (Katy Federman) and Nigel (Giles Cooper)
Upon entering the cinema, you're hit with the familiar smell of burnt toast and reminded of just how much food and smells act as markers in our memory. Fittingly, the set is the Slater family's 60s kitchen, with the clever addition of moveable cabinets and the cast pitching in to move props around. 
Nigel and his mum bake their way through family favourites jam tarts, mince pies and Christmas cake (my mouth was watering throughout). The loving relationship with his mum was in stark contrast to the lack of affection from his stern dad (Blair Plant), a factory owner and a typical father of that time who struggled to show his emotion. 

Obsessing about sweets 
I loved the way lists are used to tell us about Nigel's favourite foods, and the family rules at restaurants (where politeness is more important than the actual eating). Music and movement is used to great effect too, with great scenes including a game show-like sweet shop, a special visit to the grocery store at Christmas and mother and son dancing together on the kitchen worktops. There are plenty of funny moments (including Mrs Slater's coquettish behaviour around the gardener (Stefan Edwards) and his burgeoning interest in sex) to balance out the sadness that comes with losing a parent at a young age. The cast play a variety of roles which works really well and shows off their incredible versatility.

Nigel making himself sick on Strawberry Sundaes
The second half sees Nigel's dad getting remarried and a house move, and Nigel getting into a food war with his new step mum Joan (Samantha Hopkins). Family tragedy strikes again, but luckily food and cooking continue to be a passion for him, and leads to a job at a hotel and exploring his sexuality before he heads to the bright lights of London and The Savoy. The scene where Nigel actually cooks is beautiful and brings everything together - the sounds, ingredients, smells and simplicity of a dish made with love. If you sit in the front row you might be lucky enough to be handed some flapjack, but everyone is guaranteed sweets and yes, walnut whips are involved as well! Be prepared to want to head to a restaurant afterwards. 

Toast is at Northern Stage until 21st September - get your tickets here 

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