Manchester Theatre Awards

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Toast

Henry Filloux-Bennett
Matthew Eames
Lowry Theatre Salford
23 May 2018 to 02 June 2018

This is a  true story.  Nigel Slater is one of our best loved cookery writers but not a professional chef - its all in the simplicity, intuition and heart. It took him ten years of boyhood happiness, then despair and determination to get there. This is the story of "Toast".

In the l960s, from aged seven, Nigel, a single son, was fascinated by his mother's cookery books, especially Marguerite Patten's "Cookery in Colour". He learned the recipes off by heart and the dye was cast. 

It takes two-and-a-half hours to tell this happy/tragic story with a tad early anxious, Sam Newton, initially in short trousers - but his confidence soon took off. Sam has a splendid supporting cast of five, each taking on several fast-moving roles - boy do they draw you in. Lovely Mum (Lizzie Muncey) dies, another Mum, tarty Joan (Marie Lawrence) moves in (a show-off cook) and the cake cutters of rivalry are drawn. Nigel is deeply unhappy but despicable Dad (Stephen Ventura) has no idea how to cope, selfish, controlling and violent, knocking Nigel about.

The wide-sized set is seriously practical - a clever construction of a mock kitchen (no fancy modern gadgets) with just one or two opening storage doors and drawers. Working surfaces roll about on castors for "prepping" - essential for Nigel's foray into his first professional foody flourish. Sam Newton does the cooking with immaculate precision and accompanying steam. You will have guessed that the main ingredient is "Toast" but with an adventurous topping. It's well worth tasting.   

Reviewer: Diana Stenson

Comments

Comment by David Cunningham

Toast is part of The Lowry’s Week 53 Festival and is staged in their Lyric Theatre. Well, sort of- part of the massive stage has been partitioned off to form a Studio space.  Libby Watson has designed a slightly exaggerated almost cartoon style kitchen and, as part of the process of involving the audience, we are seated on authentic ramshackle kitchen chairs. It is as if every charity shop in the area has been raided to provide seating that is less comfortable than the benches in HOME’s Studio theatre. A more welcome method of involving the audience is the chance to sample the cakes and sweets described in the play; including a scene where the consumption of a walnut whip slips into sexual foreplay. It is a fine approach but does slow down proceedings in a long play where pacing is far from fast.

Toast is clearly a labour of love for adaptor Henry Filloux-Bennett who faithfully captures Nigel Slater’s fascination with food and its role in building relationships. The script is compassionate and non-judgemental with characters presented as products of their environment instead of monsters. Stephen Ventura portrays Slater’s Dad as someone baffled by his son’s development and unable to communicate his concerns rather than a homophobe. The effort to be true to the source material limits the drama in Toast and Slater is shown as unhappy rather than desperate so that the stunning final scene from director  Jonnie Riordan, of Slater glimpsing his promised land, lacks impact as the character’s despair has been down-played. Introducing some element of conflict in the first Act might have generated more drama.

Director Jonnie Riordan sets a warm, larger than life mood of a fairy tale or 1970’s sit-com. Audience members of a certain age guffaw affectionately whenever reference is made to past food fads. With the exception of Sam Newton’s Nigel Slater the cast play characters typical of a period in which cookbooks were a rarity, foreign food was regarded with suspicion, parents felt entitled to hit their children and the possibility of a family member being Gay was too terrifying to even discuss. It is an approach that allows for some excellent comic turns – as well as portraying Slater’s doomed Mum Lizzie Muncey does a wonderful range of dim school friends and teachers who speak in double-entendres. Marie Lawrence’s Joan is a terrific creation that combines the mundane with the monstrous. She looks like a deranged femme fatale- wearing a skirt tight enough to limit circulation and with hair piled high like the Bride of Frankenstein but speaking in a thick Birmingham accent. Sam Newton, on stage for the entire running time and acting as narrator, portrays Slater as someone a bit out of step with his family and community and still manages to catch the baffled sense of wonder with which Nigel Slater regards food.

Toast is a rich intoxicating confection that might have been even tastier with a hint of sourness to offset the sweetness.