A new stage adaptation of Nigel Slater’s Toast revels in the joy of cooking and the tragedy of a lonely boy who didn’t fit in.
If there’s one show to make the mouth water in Edinburgh this summer, it’s Nigel Slater’s Toast. Food writer Slater’s delicious and touching memoir of growing up in 1960s suburban England is a bitter-sweet pleasure stuffed with Angel Delight, tinned peach flan, farting jelly and death. It’s been adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett, whose name makes him sound like a delectable morsel of French patisserie.'I said I wasn't going to cry, but it gets me every time' Click To Tweet
Nigel Slater’s Toast is a deceptive book. At first it seems like an exercise in nostalgia but becomes something else: a Proustian journey through food into the dysfunctions and tragedies of one family,
seen through the eyes of a timid nine-year-old boy. The prose aches with the hunger of a child who just wants to be loved for what he is, not what a boy growing up in the 1960s is expected to be. One who is also trying to fill the gnawing hole left by the death of his mother.
Slater has already seen Toast five times, making the journey to Salford when it previewed at the The Lowry in May, and crying at every performance. “I said I wasn’t going to cry, but it gets me every time,” says Slater when we meet for breakfast. “It’s seeing there on stage that shy, fragile little boy who I once was. There are triggers: the last thing my nine-year-old self says to my mother before she dies; watching the scene in which my dad beats me. It makes me so upset.
To see him at the end of his tether with this little boy who was everything he didn’t want his son to be. He wanted a son who would follow in his footsteps and take over running the factory, not one who wanted to bake rock cakes.”
Before Toast, Slater hadn’t been to the theatre for years, but he’s been enchanted by the whole process, if aghast at the fragility of the economics and the brutality of auditions.
“I really hadn’t realised that theatre is held together by string and paper clips,” he says, adding that when he sat in on castings he found it almost painful because “you don’t want anyone not to get the part.”
But although Nigel Slater’s Toast has been a book, a radio adaptation and a TV film, it almost didn’t make it to the stage. When Filloux-Bennett proposed the project, Slater and his agent said no, unable to imagine how it might work. But Filloux-Bennett was persistent.
“He just kept on coming back,” recalls Slater, “and I become increasingly intrigued at how what is essentially a book of essays about my childhood could become a play.” The first version he saw lasted for three hours, took monologue form, and was, recalls Slater, “pure Alan Bennett.”
Now the play is much shorter and is an ensemble piece, featuring dance, movement and the smell of food drifting across the auditorium. There may even be some sweet treats for the audience. Slater’s business partner, James Thompson, is credited as the production’s Food Director, a title that Slater says initially stumped Equity.
Because of the previous TV film and radio adaptation, Sam Newton is the fourth actor who Slater has seen playing Nigel.
“They’ve all been very different, and I’ve loved them all, but one of the things I like about Sam’s Nigel is that he captures the steeliness below the fragility of the child.
I grew up terrified of my father. I discovered much later in life that beneath that fear there was also a strength. Sam shows that it’s there.”
But the hardest and most rewarding thing for Slater is not seeing himself portrayed on stage, but watching Lizzie Muncey playing his mother.
“She captures my mother’s unspoken anxiety about what would happen to me, and her frustration about all the things she couldn’t do with me as a child because of her illness. The way she had to sit in a chair and couldn’t play. Lizzie reminds me how much my mother loved me, this strange little boy who was a complete and utter mistake.” He pauses and examines the toast crusts he has left uneaten on his plate. “I wish she was here to see this play and see me now. I wish she could see how everything worked out.”