Toast is the kind of show that comes with a Food Director. It’s part comedy, part biography, part cooking demonstration event. This is a show where you get a bag of sweets and a walnut whip to enjoy in a synchronised eating experience.
It’s a show about Nigel Slater’s childhood and adolescence. And as Nigel is a celebrated cook and award-winning culinary writer, this is also a show about food. There’s even mince pies after.
A ’60s AGA-centred kitchen in depicted in cream-coloured cardboard and the house-lights are covered in a swarm of beige lampshades. A jam tart awaits you on your seat. Two kitchen work tops swing into action. There are lots of pieces of set, and characters on pieces of set, moving on wheels.
Sometimes it works beautifully, and sometimes it feels like a lot of faff and effort that gets in the way. At the start of show, Nigel tumbles through the gliding workstations announcing that, “It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you.”
The person the nine-year old Nigel loves is his mother. They bond over baking and her many splendid failures in the kitchen. Nigel’s father fares little better, and Aunty Fanny feigns deafness and tiredness to avoid any cooking at all.
As Nigel begins to grow up, he experiences two things: an increasing attraction for Josh the gardener and an awareness that his mother is hiding a secret from him.
Life delivers Nigel hard punches, but he learns to roll with them. We see him manoeuvre his way past a competitive step-mother, a disapproving father and an awakening sense of his own sexuality, to finally get a chance at achieving his foodie goal.
The show’s ingredients don’t always mix together well. Nigel has a role as narrator which sometimes slows everything down with irrelevant commentary or with stuff that could be shown. Some of the food sequences, such as a parody of an advert for eggs, are hilarious, whilst others drag, like a leaden episode on trifle-making.
Generally, the food could be used as a metaphor more for what is happening in the drama of Nigel’s life and less as a cooking show interlude. The first half feels like its spinning out a thin story out and the second half feels like it’s cramming too much in.
A cast of five play 25 different roles, with three of them taking the majority of the multi-playing. Lizzie Muncey, Marie Lawrence and Andy Brady are excellent, all able to create comic characters swiftly and switch to serious roles deftly.
Stephen Ventura is wonderful as the kind of Dad that can chide his son for being a “Nancy boy”, but then place a sweet by his bed every night for two years to cheer him up.
Sam Newton’s Nigel Slater is not a complete success. He is more convincing as his character grows older, but he fails to fully mark out the differences between a nine and a seventeen year old and plays the piece mostly on one note.
Toast may not be a perfectly hot buttered offering, but it is engaging, experimental and has a lots of fun and warmth.
‘Toast’ runs at The Lowry, Salford until Saturday 2 June.
Words: Stephen M Hornby