“So… Nigel Slater. Have you heard of him?” I asked Mrs Chrisparkle, shortly before we set off to the theatre. “He’s a chef, isn’t he?” she replied. “Yes, indeed” I said, confident as I had only Googled him a couple of hours earlier. To be honest, I hadn’t a clue who Nigel Slater was. Obviously important enough to have a play written about his toast, at any rate. And when you enter the Royal auditorium, that’s the first thing you notice – the smell of deliciously crisp, tasty toast. Torture for the coeliac Mrs C, who hasn’t had decent toast since 2004.
It is a trifle odd to watch a play, adapted from the autobiography of someone you’ve never heard of, and for a while I kept on thinking that I was missing something, some kind of grand identity reveal that would give added purpose to this otherwise rather private play. But I never felt the benefit of that reward. Instead for me it was a kind of voyeuristic experience, observing the childhood and upbringing of a famous person without truly understanding why I was doing it.
That said, it’s a very enjoyable, totally charming and incredibly slick production that uses its kitchen set to remarkable ends – with a very creative use of those floating island units we all envy in kitchen showrooms, although if you saw how they presented Getting Married Today in the recent production of Company, it won’t come as that much of a surprise. We meet 8-year-old Nigel helping his mother in the kitchen, devouring the wise words of Marguerite Patten; it’s obvious from the very start that Nigel has a very serious interest in cookery, this is not merely food-play. We then follow him through life’s experiences, including his first sight of a naked man (at a surprisingly young age), the confusion over boy sweets and girl sweets, the loss of his mother, his father’s remarriage and his first steps towards adulthood, both at work and in discovering his sexuality.
Henry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation is beautifully written; a delicate soufflé of words and emotions that bind perfectly and rise just as they should. Throughout the play there are occasions when nothing is actually said, but the expressions and the actions of the performers give it greater eloquence than words ever could. And, having lost a parent myself at a young age, I found its whole portrayal and understanding of childhood bereavement completely believable – and young Nigel really reminded me of myself, which was quite a shock. Plus: real cooking! Whilst some of the earlier food preparations in the play are presented, by necessity, à la Blue Peter, whatever it is that Giles Cooper cooked in the final scene – definitely involving mushrooms – wafted gloriously into the auditorium. Sit in the front row and you might get some flapjacks; the rest of us take lucky dips out of several bags of sweeties. I plumped for a roll of Fizzers, which are alarmingly noisy to open in the theatre, particularly when one hand is holding a glass of Malbec. To be frank, Fizzers and Argentinian Red aren’t the best food/wine pairing.
Central to the success of this production is a superb performance by Giles Cooper. His very clean-cut image is perfect for the young Nigel, and I remember that shorts and long socks look from my own childhood. Perfect clarity of diction, childlike (as opposed to childish) expressions and reactions, the disappointment when plans go wrong, routine behaviours, and much more – it’s a very full and credible performance of a child’s existence, and the growing awareness of life outside the kitchen as he gets older.
Blair Plant is also excellent as Dad; very formal, sometimes finding it difficult to exercise his parental skills to the best of his ability, but also wheedling like a child when he wants everything his own way. The other members of the cast take several roles. Katy Federman gives a great performance as the kindly Mum, an almost idealistically perfect mother figure, balancing her love for her child and wanting the best for him, with her own failing health – she’s also great fun as Doreen, Nigel’s first employer. Samantha Hopkins is terrific as the loathsome Joan, with whom Dad falls in love (well, in lust, really), a lascivious chainsmoking strumpet with a need to compete for affection. And Stefan Edwards is great in all the other male roles – the surprisingly uninhibited gardener, Nigel’s goofy schoolmate, and Doreen’s ballet-dancing son.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the production, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed. It’s a lively, honest, creative play that shows the boy turn into the man. I’m sure if you’re already familiar with the man in question, you’d get even more out of it! Toast is touring into December, so if you’re near Richmond, Brighton, Salisbury, Manchester, York, Chesterfield or Crewe, you can see The Rise and Rise of Young Nigel for yourself – tickets available here. Very slick, very enjoyable – recommended!
Production photos by Piers Foley