Celebrity chef Nigel Slater explores a troubled childhood through culinary experiences in his new theatre production
When you think of burnt toast, you don’t necessarily imagine celebrity chef Nigel Slater. But that’s what this play, which delves into the turbulence of an unhappy childhood, is about.
Growing up in the Midlands within a hum-drum suburban family, Slater’s connection to the mother he lost aged nine is remembered through the cooking he and his mum did together. Pies, tarts, cakes and all the treats a child growing up would find mouth-watering become integral to this production, along with the toast his mother always managed to singe. A series of show-and-tell culinary demonstrations guide the audience through Slater’s home life in a creatively staged adaptation of Nigel Slater’s book, even occasionally breaking into song and dance from the seventies and eighties.
But his blissful bubble of hours spent kneading pastry for pies and tarts under his mother’s guiding hand ends abruptly when her worsening asthma leads to an early demise one December. It’s Christmas Eve, and as with every year, Nigel (Giles Cooper) is immersed in the festive baking for the family. This year though his mother (Lizzie Muncey), overcome by worsening health, has forgotten the filling for the minced pies. Meanwhile the young Nigel is unaware of the situation and becomes infuriated by her seeming incompetence, telling her he wishes she was dead. Unfortunately for him that’s exactly what happens the next day. When he should have woken up to presents enveloped by an abundance of his parent’s love, the house instead is pierced by the cold void left by her absence.
The play entertains, informs and even feeds the audience occasionally with some very sickly tasting sweets reminiscent of a childhood in the seventies and eighties. Anyone who can remember those times will be only too grateful for how far food has moved on, but it certainly gave the whole production an immersive quality. Tangy lemon meringue tarts baked by the family cleaner, a woman whom the young Nigel despises and who later marries his dad (Stephen Ventura), were also served up to the audience, with their piercing texture making for particularly memorable hors d’oeuvres. Within the narrative the lemon tarts, as with the rest of the food in the production, become a point of friction, now between Nigel and his step mum (Marie Lawrence) who both see cooking as the way to win his dad’s attention. In the case of the tarts, his stepmother jealously guards the recipe in case Nigel is able to bake them even better than she can.
Yet Slater’s relationship with his dad is equally fraught. His father’s family worked in the dairy business and Nigel is subsequently forced to eat eggs, almost as a way of ensuring family continuum. When the boy protests that they make him feel sick, his father threatens him with a beating and forces them down his throat. Nigel accedes but immediately throws up, depicting his rebellion against an unloving and controlling father. He eventually wins out by forging an identity for himself through cooking, something that not only defines his raison d’etre but also helps overcome his teenage angst, the loss of a dear parent and his burgeoning sexuality with both men and women.
The set is cleverly managed, turning from family kitchen, to restaurant, to other people’s homes and finally to the outside of the Savoy Hotel where Nigel Slater gets his first big break on the road to the national status he enjoys today. The actors demonstrate enormous versatility, playing many bit-parts, from direct Slater family members to those of the extended family, and then various characters within the Masonic club with whom his father kept firm company following his wife’s death.
Nigel Slater never managed to say goodbye to his mother and this play could be seen as a recreation of that relationship, expressing the refuge he took in cooking as a substitute for the love he never had in a family that largely felt foreign to him. The various bonds between the personalities and the alien environment in which they are placed is captured by the largely distant behaviour of the characters towards each other, and the separation which the growing boy feels from many of them. In many ways, the sentiments behind the stage play’s writing could be understood as a way for Slater to talk about his childhood without actually exposing himself. Nostalgic but not over-indulgent, Nigel Slater’s Toast is an interactive show citing the musings of an intensely private person who has a lot to get out.
Nigel Slater’s Toast is written by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed and choreographed by Jonnie Riordan. It’s showing at The Other Palace theatre until 3 August 2019.
Photo Credits: Simon Annand
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