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Tim Winter

Review: TOAST at the Other Palace

Once dubbed 'the Alan Bennett' of cooking, Nigel Slater has become, over the past few years, a similarly un-pretentious, endearing National Treasure. Warm and down to earth, talented, hard-working but humble, he has charmed his way into our lives and kitchens with his cookery books, TV shows and autobiographies.

Lizzy Muncey as Mum, Jake Ferretti as Josh, Marie Lawrence as Joan (c) Simon AnnandLizzy Muncey as Mum, Jake Ferretti as Josh, Marie Lawrence as Joan (c) Simon Annand

The first of these 'Toast', originally published in 2003, has enjoyed critical and public success and has gone on to be dramatised for television and the stage. Adapted by (ex kitchen staffer) Henry Filloux-Bennett, originally for the Lowry Theatre in Salford, then in Edinburgh, Toast has at last come to London. 

Giles Cooper plays Nigel as we follow him from age 9, obsessed by one of the few books in his house, Marguerite Patten's 'Cooking in Colour', that brought a touch of exoticism, adventure and fantasy to the Wolverhampton of his childhood, through to his leaving home less than 10 years later to become the cook we know today. He has his work cut out as he narrates the story to us, the audience, and then also interacts with the other actors to play 'Nigel'. At first I was irritated by this, he could have just sat on stage and read excerpts of the book, but Cooper is so enthusiastic and energetic in his grey school shorts, this 'breaking of the fourth wall' soon feels natural and helps the show's pace.

Clutching his cookery book, Nigel and his beloved Mum, played by Lizzie Muncey, enjoy their time together in the kitchen, making tarts and a Christmas cake before tragedy strikes. As well as being privy to Nigel's private thoughts, the audience is kept involved by being given the odd treat by the actors. Though handed out very proficiently, the treats do slow things down a bit and the cacophony of hundreds of sweet wrappers being attacked at the same time drowned out the business on the stage for a while.

We witness Nigel growing up, going on happy holidays, the loss of his mother, fights with his family, his awakening sexuality and his growing obsession and love of food and cooking. It's as comfortable as a big bowl of mashed potatoes.

The director, Jonnie Riordan, is also credited with the choreography. This mostly entails bits of kitchen furniture being spun around to a soundtrack of 60's pop, but it really comes alive in the second part in a great scene depicting the food wars Nigel and his step-mother Joan (a great, chain-smoking, blistering performance from Marie Lawrence) have to get attention from Nigel's Dad, a nice but dull and rather tragic figure with a penchant for Walnut Whips (sympathetically played by Stephen Ventura). Set to the Talking Heads' Psychokiller, the stage bathed in red light and played as fast as a panto sketch, the cakes get bigger and wilder, the movement more and more frantic, the show seems to finally let go, gives in to its inner surrealism and is hugely entertaining. 

There was room for more of this, a bit more energy and silliness. As it is, it's a gentle, nostalgic, heart-warming, tasty and tasteful evening in the theatre. With extra lemon tarts.

Nigel Slater's TOAST