BWW Review: TOAST, Richmond Theatre
Toast is the adaptation of a poignant childhood memoir, where the early death of a parent leads to a strained relationship with an awful stepmother and an increasingly violent father. So far, so familiar.
What makes the story of Nigel Slater, one of the country's best-loved food writers, so different is Slater's utterly infectious love for food. After very successful runs at Manchester's Lowry, Edinburgh's Traverse and London's The Other Palace Theatre, this deliciously bittersweet play is now on a national tour.
In Slater's cookery writing, every ingredient and every meal has a story behind it. Slater's writing is at the heart of the production; poetic, detailed and often very funny. The success of this play are the stories that surround food throughout his childhood. Jam tarts are what his nine-year-old self remind him of his mother and a Victoria sponge is the battleground between him and his aloof stepmother, Joan. Food is the vehicle that drives this story along in a wave of cosy nostalgia, mixed with genuine heartache.
Adults playing children can be problematic, but Giles Cooper makes an excellent Nigel. He is touchingly vulnerable after his mother's death and visibly gains in confidence as he forges his way against the distain of his stepmother and the sometimes brutal marshalling of his father. He is very convincing in his absolute love and enthusiasm for food and has a natural rapport with the audience, who instantly warm to him.
Katy Federman is scatty, kind and accepting as Mum. The relationship between the pair is genuine and touching, even if she cannot make toast that isn't cremated to a cinder. It is obvious that she doesn't enjoy cooking, but makes jam tarts with her son because he so clearly loves it.
Samantha Hopkins provides a stark contrast to this warmth and love as stepmother Joan. She is harsh and sharp, using her superior cooking skills to demean and challenge the young Nigel. Food is now weaponised. Hopkins is amusingly awful, with a withering manner and huge beehive hair.
There are many layers to the story, with Blair Plant as the overbearing and tough father who rails against any hint of deviation from traditional masculinity. Plant is excellent, showing the grief behind his behaviour, but also his inability to truly connect with and understand his son.
This is a production to touch all the senses; young Nigel's descriptions of food are inviting and passionate. The audience is passed a variety of sweet treats to feel fully immersed in the play and the smell of toast and fried garlic permeates the theatre.
Jonnie Riordan's direction has a lightness of touch that suits the story, while lingering just long enough on the dark points to give them the impact they deserve. The choreography is well developed with particularly effective elements such as when Nigel's mum teaches him to dance on the kitchen worktops as the units are rolled around the stage by the rest of the cast.
The use of a well-chosen 60s soundtrack and Libby Watson's wonderfully nostalgic and cartoonish kitchen set adds to the whimsical feel of the production.
Even if you have never heard of Nigel Slater or have any interest in food, it would be difficult to deny the genuine warmth and nostalgia of this production. It has a huge heart and deftly pays testament to the strength of the human spirit.
Photo Credit: Piers Foley