Nigel Slater once sent me a nice email about cheese. (Taleggio, if you are interested). Back in the days when I could still stomach the smug self-satisfaction of the Sunday supplements and thought that one day I might actually cook, I wrote to him with a question about one of his recipes, and he sent me a charming and pleasant email explaining what cheese I could use if I couldn’t find the taleggio he specified, and also where I could buy taleggio in my neighbourhood, if I wanted to seek it out. It was such a ridiculously small but thoughtful thing that I have retained a fondness for Slater for all these years, even though among most of my friends he is a byword for a certain type of wanky affectedness around food. (That and the fact that one of his books contains a recipe for chip butties that is basically: butter some white bread, then go buy some chips from the chip shop, which is my kind of cooking, frankly.)
It was this lingering affection that drew me to Toast, which is based on his autobiography, even though all the advance press made it look twee, and smug, and catering for the Sunday supplement audience: basically, everything I hate about theatre, packaged in pastel colours and a sanitised wash of foodie nostalgia. Hell, these days, I don’t even like cooking. But, like that time I imagined that no one would really notice I accidentally used baking soda instead of sugar in a cake recipe, it turns out I was wrong. Very wrong. Toast is actually far more than its chocolate box packaging would suggest: it’s a wryly funny, sharply observed coming of age story, with plenty of tartness to balance the sweet.
Giles Cooper is certainly engaging as Nigel, a boy raised by doting parents, bonding with his sweet-natured mother (Katy Federman) over her well-meaning but limited cooking repertoire. In an era when spaghetti bolognaise was considered wildly adventurous, young Nigel’s diet depends heavily on the kind of English nursery favourites now derided and fetishized in equal measure – chops for tea, jam tarts for afters. When not in the kitchen, he hangs around the dangerously dishy gardener or eats sweetshop treats with his best friend (both played by Stefan Edwards, who ably dons multiple roles throughout).
But the early death of his mother means a new stepmother (Samantha Hopkins, on fine comedic form) and a very different relationship with his father (a bluff but sympathetic Blair Plant), who is balancing his own grief at the loss of his wife with his frustration at what he sees as an increasingly problematic son.
This strong cast are well-supported by Henry Filloux-Bennett’s witty, poignant script and Jonnie Riordan’s nimble direction and choreography, which keeps everything light as a souffle, without shying away from the darker moments of the piece. Although the giant ‘Toast’ sign about the stage feels a little heavy-handed – did they imagine we forgot what we had come to see? – the rest of Libby Watson’s versatile set is a nostalgic delight.
Although Slater’s sexuality is only lightly touched on, it’s not ignored, and we feel the constriction of growing up in a house where even what sweets you eat is an indication of ‘masculinity’: if Palma violets are strictly for girls, god forbid you ever order a bag of fairy drops.
Food, unsurprisingly, plays a major role in the show – on stage and off. Sly cookery show sleights of hand are playfully alluded to, and foodie treats are distributed throughout: some lucky folk in the front row get flapjacks, bags of sweets do the rounds, and one very funny scene is accompanied by the audience en masse opening up their walnut whips. Like Slater’s own writing, the play recognises that cooking can encompass many things – whether it’s his stepmother using her culinary skills to compete with a teenage Nigel for his father’s affections or all the genteel snobbery around even the most minor decisions, like what you order in a restaurant and what sauce you have with your chips. When Nigel struggles to express himself, he does with cooking – the scene where he prepares his own version of his father’s favourite meal after hearing of his death is genuinely moving. Food is many things, some good, some bad, some complicated: a reason to look down at your neighbours, a way you show your love. In the end – as a teenage Nigel rocks up in London, blagging his way to a job at the kitchens in the Savoy – food is his route to freedom.
Toast runs at Northern Stage until 21 September, then tours until 30 November. More info here.