Theatre: TV chef’s childhood revisited in new play Toast

Are you trapped in your childhood? A lot of people are.

Reliving tragic, often traumatic, events. Repeating patterns in an attempt to find solutions.

This would certainly appear to be the case with Nigel Slater, the celebrated food writer and TV chef, writes Christopher Walker.

He grew up in a dreary Wolverhampton suburb with an abusive father and a doting mother. Worse, she sadly died when Nigel was just nine – on Christmas day.

His auto-biography, and now this play, Toast, recalls these sad events.

Nigel Slater is a very good cook and a very good writer. His TV shows Real Food, Simple Suppers, and Farm Kitchen successfully sang the praises of the kind of comfort food we all knew as children.

He, and his food, are very much a product of a specific time and place – in his case England in the 1960s.

When he was given a chat show he called it Taste of My Life. His play Toast captures these themes, and how his traumatic childhood inspired his cooking.

This show was a hit at the Fringe in Edinburgh and is now ensconced at The Other Palace in Victoria for a long run.

Marie Lawrence as Joan

Rather appropriately, given Mr Slater’s devotion to pork crackling, there’s a restaurant called The Naughty Piglet on the ground floor. Toast is tough on its lead actor, as it requires an adult to portray child Nigel at the ages of nine, 13 and 16. No easy task.

Giles Cooper is remarkably like the adult Mr Slater in his boyish voice and enthusiasm, if not his blond locks. The set, a pastel 1960s kitchen, and the supporting cast are both excellent.

Especially Jake Ferretti, who camply plays a variety of different characters with the help of the odd scarf and a different pair of glasses.

Many of these are also the objects of Nigel’s partly formed crushes.

For Nigel was a shy, sensitive boy, who was also having to cope with being gay. There are no deep insights into his feelings – rather a child’s memory.

A memory that is bitter-sweet.

Lizzie Muncey as the dotty, asthmatic mum conveys Mr Slater’s memories of the one person he loved and lost as a little boy. She often burnt the toast, hence the title.

Equally Stephen Ventura is just right as the abusive, homophobic dad. Mr Slater’s father certainly does not come well out of this piece. Mr Slater’s stepmother also comes across very badly.

Marie Lawrence is absolutely perfect as the nasal, annoying, Joan – the cleaning lady who married Mr Slater’s father after his mother died.

The Beehive wig helps a lot. Mr Slater’s stepmother was a very good cook of comfort food, and you realise, watching this piece, how much Mr Slater’s own work is a result of his childhood rivalry with her.

The kitchen became a battlefield between the two of them.

His father’s affection was the prize. Joan comes across as truly ghastly. However, remember this is one side of events. Events disputed by Mr Slater’s step sisters, who do not appear in this show, nor indeed his two brothers – this is a very Nigel-centred memory.

Reportedly they are now estranged. If you are a sweet lover you will love this production, as there is an endless supply of Parma violets and walnut whips handed out willy-nilly to the audience.

A lot of the show is accompanied by the rustling of sweet wrappers. But then again, this is somehow appropriate.

When he appeared on Desert Island Discs, all of Mr Slater’s hatred for his father and stepmother spilled out. Along with his love for his lost mother.

Oh, and his top chosen record was Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Some people never can grow up.

Toast plays at the Other Palace until August 3

Box Office: 0207 087 7900.

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