“Toast” is based on Nigel Slater’s autobiography “Toast : The Story of a Boy’s Hunger” at Richmond Theatre and it is by turns charming, chilling and challenging. Part pantomime, part musical, part suburban sit com, this is a funny, engaging and uplifting production.
Toast works on so many levels. It does what I most enjoy about drama, it sees life whole, the ups the downs, the tears and the laughter. The sheer variety is exhilarating. Song and dance routines, slapstick comedy, intense psychological realism, profound insight all delivered by five superb actors with a wonderful selection of pop classics driving the momentum. From the Talking Heads “ Pyscho Killer” to Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again”.
Every second is made to count.
The kitchen set is packed with irony. The fridge which doubles as an exit and entrance. All the kitchen’s a stage! The work surfaces on wheels which are moved frantically around the stage like bumper cars. Toast gives a whole new meaning to the traditional British Kitchen Sink Drama. Not so much Chips With Everything but Everything on Toast. The direction from Jonnie Riordan is fast paced, dynamic and engaging.
Toast is a coming of age story about a boy and his struggle to understand his parents and come to terms with himself. “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole” meets “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”.
Giles Cooper in his school uniform looks every inch the nine year old Nigel. With his boyish good looks he reminded me of Ardal O’Hanlon in Father Ted. He wins over the audience with his funny yet poignant asides. Like Adrian Mole he confides in us and we are with him. An only child he lives in Wolverhampton with his doting Mum (the superb Katy Federman) and his very scary Dad (Blair Plant, brilliant). His Dad considers him to be a ” nancy boy” because he doesn’t like sport and spends most of his time cooking with his mum. This Oedipal conflict drives the play. Nigel finds solace in cooking.
His mum teaches him but also tests him. She asks him to recite the recipe for mince pies. This will come in very useful when he applies for a job at The Savoy in London. Crucially his mum shows him that cooking is fun and that recipes are only guidelines, “recipes are only what someone else likes” she says, “so make up your own”. This becomes a metaphor for Nigel’s life. Don’t be a slave to other peoples recipes make up your own. As she says “cooking is the most fun you can have with your clothes on”.
The 3 way power struggle between Nigel, mum and dad is iterated throughout the play. Dad takes Nigel to the sweet shop as a treat, but becomes furious when Nigel wants “Fairy Drops”. This leads to a surreal game show scene in which the contestants have to answer questions on the gender identity of sweets according to Nigel’s Dad. Mum in attempting to protect Nigel from his martinet dad becomes over-indulgent and gets dangerously close to Freudian Oedipal complexes. But it’s a very warm relationship and it’s her example that gives Nigel the resilience to overcome his ordeals. Echoes of D H Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers” in the scenes between the two of them. Very moving.
Sex and food move centre stage in the second act. Nigel is now 17. He has a wicked step mother Joan (Samantha Hopkins, wonderful) and his dad has discovered Walnut Whips. Watching “The Persuaders” on TV the three of them play a game which involves licking out the marshmallow from the pyramid of chocolate. This grotesquely hilarious comic vignette is topped by the Nigel Vs. Joan battle of the cakes scene in which they up the ante to see who can be the undisputed cake supremo, made even more surreal by having “Pyscho Killer” playing full blast.
Dad tries some gay aversion therapy on Nigel in the form of force feeding him eggs. He’d read in The Daily Telegraph that eggs build up testosterone. This does not end well. In full revolt against his step mother and his father, Nigel gets a job in a local restaurant. Here he meets Stuart (Stefan Edwards, excellent) a student at the Royal Ballet in London. They walk out together to The Crystals “Then He Kissed Me”. Afterwards irreverent as ever, Nigel is puzzled that he feels no different now that he is “one of them”.
Nigel pays homage to his mum and dad. By cooking freely as his mum showed him and by making mushrooms on toast. Mushrooms being his dads favourite.
This is an uplifting and life affirming play.
I came out with nothing but admiration for Nigel Slater. A wonderful man. Honest and Kind. Unlike the narrator in “Psycho Killer”, Nigel can face up to the facts. Nobody puts Nigel Slater on Toast.
Review by John O’Brien