By Ken Powell
Newcastle’s Northern Stage bills this production as a comedy – and it is, gloriously so. But beware, you’ll want tissues aplenty as this adaptation of Nigel Slater’s childhood biography is a painful tearjerker.
The play (written by Henry Filloux-Bennett) takes us from Slater’s memories of cooking with his mother through to his eventual arrival in London as a seventeen-year-old would-be chef. In between we’re taken through the traumas which were to shape him side-by-side with the rules of restaurant dining and appropriateness of sweets among many other tales with which a young Nigel Slater (Giles Cooper) regales the audience.
The setting – predominantly the kitchen of the Slater household – will resonate with those of us who are pushing 50 or older as will many of the food items, adverts and social events Slater recalls throughout the show. This is the stuff of 60s and 70s Britain and the brilliant scripting means we are able to mock those times whilst also fondly remembering them.
A stroke of genius, considering this is the story of a well-known food writer, is to involve the audience with the tastes and smells of the culinary world. We are offered sweets of various sorts along the way and smell the cooking on stage. Ironically, the opening performance was delayed a little as, quite literally, someone had burnt the toast just before the start and staff had clearly made valiant attempts to clear the fumes. I almost wonder if it was planned as it fitted perfectly with the opening scenes. Wasn’t everyone’s day started with the smell and taste of burnt toast back in those days?
Giles Cooper, of course, playing Slater the boy, is sweet, endearing, hilarious and absolutely real. He holds the show from beginning to end and is mesmerising. The four supporting actors, all taking multiple roles, are equally superb. Not one of them had a trace of weakness and their comic timing was perfection. For me though, Katy Federman’s performance as his mother was absolutely key to making this production work. Her fragility and immense strength shine through magnificently. Federman also happens to make exactly that kind of mother we boys all secretly fancied, our first guilty crush as we entered puberty. She’s beautiful to watch and utterly convincing. The scenes with Cooper and Federman I could happily watch over and over again.
Comedies are usually feel-good events and ‘Toast’ is certainly no different: you leave feeling more positive about being a human being. But at the same time, I suspect many of us pondered the meaning of the relationships with our mothers. What they meant then, what they mean now, and perhaps even question how was wise is it to be close to a parent? Is it cruel to give such love to a child only to snatch that away? Or does such love, even when lost, give a child strength to face the rest of their life?
As I left the theatre I noticed that Nigel Slater had turned up for the opening night. I didn’t try to fight my way through the crowds of those trying to get a selfie with him. Generally, I tend to avoid celebrities and thankfully don’t suffer the common affliction of adulating the famous. Indeed, I’ve never read any book by Nigel Slater nor seen him on TV. But I’m pretty certain that the personality Cooper presents is, at core, the kind of boy Slater was, and I like the person I imagine he has become as a result. While I never had the love affair with food and smells that he did at that age, there’s much of his life I can relate to and I can’t help but admire him. I may not adulate the famous, but I do feel loyalty and connection with anyone who shares the raw and the real in their lives with me. Slater does this with his audiences and I for one can say with some certainty that at least one of his books will end up in my collection before too long.
Nigel Slater’s ‘Toast’ is visiting Northern Stage, Newcastle until Saturday 21 September (for tickets call 01912305151) before continuing to Malvern Theatres. For tour details go to nigelslaterstoast.co.uk
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.