sat 05/12/2020

Toast, Lawrence Batley Theatre online review - pungent adaptation of Nigel Slater's autobiography | reviews, news & interviews

Toast, Lawrence Batley Theatre online review - pungent adaptation of Nigel Slater's autobiography

Toast, Lawrence Batley Theatre online review - pungent adaptation of Nigel Slater's autobiography

Food crimes of the Sixties and Seventies are revealed here as Michelin-starred memories

Slater's account fuses love for his mother with burnt toast and his father’s restrictive attitude to sexuality with sweetsJenny Zarins

I knew what a Howard Hodgkin painting would look like before I ever saw one because of Nigel Slater. There’s a recipe in one of his very early books, Real Cooking, for “A creamy, colourful, fragrant chicken curry” which he candidly admits is “seriously unauthentic”, with ingredients that will leave some purists “really pissed-off”.

I knew what a Howard Hodgkin painting would look like before I ever saw one because of Nigel Slater. There’s a recipe in one of his very early books, Real Cooking, for “A creamy, colourful, fragrant chicken curry” which he candidly admits is “seriously unauthentic”, with ingredients that will leave some purists “really pissed-off”. But it’s a wonderful recipe, and as ever this is partly to do with the words he chooses to describe it. Towards the end, when the chicken, tomatoes, yoghurt, and assorted spices are simmering he declares ‘It will be yellow, green and red. Like a Howard Hodgkin.’ Years later, I went to a Hodgkin exhibition at the Tate, and realised he was absolutely right. 

Slater’s ability to saturate the words of his recipes with lived human experience is intrinsic to the magic of the way he writes. Cooking is the prism through which he views the world, and it is a richer world because of it. In Toast that sense of autobiography which filters through his recipes became explicit in his account of his childhood and adolescence. It’s a pungent account that fuses love for his mother with burnt toast, an erotic awakening with radishes, and his father’s restrictive attitude to sexuality with sweets: “Lovehearts [are for] girls; Gobstoppers, boys; Rolos, boys;…Sherbert Fountains, girls.”

The hugely popular book has gone through successive reincarnations as a film, radio-play and West End stage production. Now Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre has reinvented it as a new form of theatre for the age of Covid. The West End cast – led by Giles Cooper as Slater – have recorded their parts separately, before offering them up to the sound design team of Alexandra Faye Braithwaite, Annie May Fletcher and Sophie Galpin. Henry Filloux-Bennett has adapted the book, and his dialogue comes to life visually through an animated film by Dusthouse, which sets the words to images that evoke lovingly drawn children’s books. (see below)

It’s a format that works very well for Slater’s intimate evocative style. Jonnie Riordan’s production has an ease to it that makes it feel like perfect watching for a Saturday afternoon in the kitchen, or an evening winding down after too many Zoom calls. 

The story can on one level be read as a tragedy – the signs are there early on that Slater’s mother will die young, and his subsequent relationship with his stepmother was very unhappy. (Though he has subsequently declared he would have portrayed her  somewhat more sympathetically from an adult’s perspective.) Yet ultimately the food in his life proves both redemptive and transformative. Even his stepmother could create a lemon meringue pie that was “one of the most glorious things I had ever put in my mouth”.  

Along with the feeling of comfort and sensual warmth in his food descriptions, there is a real sense of a fascinating social history. Slater remembers for instance when his father attempted the then exotic dish of spaghetti Bolognese, only for them to throw it away because the strange powdered cheese they added – called Parmesan – smelt “like sick”. One of his favourite recollections of his mother’s hapless kitchen exploits was butterscotch Angel Delight, a pudding sadly absent from most larders today even though simply by adding powder to milk you could end up with a heavenly – if chemical saturated - mousse in minutes. All the food crimes of the Sixties and Seventies are revealed here as Michelin-starred memories. It's part of the joy that any dish is allowed to seem miraculous, as long as it is served with the right levels of imagination and love.

In a particularly nice flourish, this Lawrence Batley Theatre production provides its weblink accompanied by a recipe card, so you can get a more three-dimensional experience than usual through cooking food suggested by Slater. It’s not theatre as we knew it, but it’s one more sign of our creative industries’ endless capacity for re-invention, which should be celebrated from the rooftops until the day that our wretched government wakes up to exactly what it is we’re in such danger of losing.

 

 

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