Edinburgh Fringe 2018
You first see a kitchen. In fact, that’s all you see, no matter if the story takes us to school or a sweetshop: a kitchen, sprawlingly oversized, expanded by a child’s memory: drawer handles having the look of a kid’s painting, vinyl floor (easily cleaned) vast and wide, as if seen from only a few feet up. For you, home may be wherever you lay your hat, but for Nigel Slater – both as the writer of the original book on which this is based, and as the main character and narrator of the play, home is wherever there’s a decent kitchen.
Because Nigel Slater’s Toast is all about memory. And, specifically, memories via taste and smell. There’s the vague tang of burned toast as you arrive at the Traverse and, tantalisingly muffled – as if from a transistor radio playing next door – music hits from the sixties. This is the story of Nigel Slater’s childhood, an era of British cooking that is frankly not well regarded. A sequence in which the Slater family regard pasta and its accompaniments with suspicion and distaste highlights just how basic the menu was, not helped by the fact that Nigel’s mum isn’t the world’s greatest cook. It’s notable also that Dad – a sometimes small man weighed down by big challenges – leaves most of the kitchen duties to Mum (that’s one of the ‘rules’ of food, perhaps), but when it comes to an exotic idea like Italian cuisine, he’s the Master Of The Kitchen: a frustrated idea (and ideal) of masculinity runs through Dad like lettering in a stick of seaside rock, an ideal that’s frustrated further by the man young Nigel is growing up to be.
As in the source material, Nigel the character and Nigel the writer share only as much of the selection box of his life as he wishes. It’s clear that he’s an unabashed romantic, but he’s careful to conceal if he has a hard or soft centre. Again as in the original book, Nigel’s response to a new mother figure is unvarnished: he hates Joan for the triple crime of being a new woman in Dad’s affections, being common, and most upsettingly, a much better cook than Nigel’s mum. But is just as easy to see past Nigel’s reaction, see the bigger picture, and have sympathy with Joan, knowing that the boy is being unreasonable in his reaction. But even that’s fair enough: he’s only twelve.
There a couple of moments when the audience are allowed to whet their appetite along with the Slater family (word of advice: don’t arrive hungry), and even then Dad’s paranoia about food that is seen to be masculine or effeminate – between a Flake and a Walnut Whip, one is deemed acceptable, and one is not: can you guess which? But the moments of ‘real’ food and real cooking (to borrow, incidentally, names of two of Nigel’s books) could be multiplied – although it is true that when Nigel cooks a meal that is both remarkably simple and heart achingly poignant, the audience of the Traverse simply .. stops. Watching. Sharing that simple pleasure of hanging out in a kitchen, watching a loved one slice, dice, get oil on their fingers, and create something that didn’t exist a few moments previously. That said, it’s difficult not to hope for a London run of Nigel Slater’s Toast over Christmas time, with all the colours, smells and tastes that would involve.
For those who are able to place the smells of a roast beef Sunday dinner on an equal footing with the bottom of an empty tin of Quality Street, Nigel Slater’s Toast is a delicate bittersweet treat to be savoured.