Burnt Toast

‘My mother burns toast as surely as the sun rises each morning… I am nine now and I have never seen butter without black bits in it.’ ~ Nigel Slater

The Other Palace is a terrific little theatre only a stone’s throw from the real one on The Mall. The pub next door is buzzing when I wander past on Wednesday evening, in search of ‘Wagamama’s’ for a quick bite to eat before the show. It is still buzzing when I walk into the theatre an hour or so later…

I am early for once, the theatre almost empty, and I have a clear view of the stage set: a retro green, fifties kitchen complete with a brightly patterned, linoleum floor. On a narrow shelf, at the back of the stage I spot a Marguerite Patten’s ‘Cookery in Colour,’ and on the fridge, a red toaster in which a slice of bread waits patiently to be toasted. By the time I reach my seat in Row B, my foot is already tapping to the sound of the jaunty sixties sound track.

The Other Palace belongs to the illustrious Mr. Lloyd Webber, the latest acquisition in a stable of seven. This one only opened in 2017, but it reminds me distinctly of my adolescent years at The Space in the Adelaide Festival Centre. Sitting within spitting distance of the stage, at eye-level with the actors, this is my favourite spot in any theatre. I am almost on stage, but not quite, disbelief willingly suspended as I hover mere inches from the magic, waiting eagerly for the lights to dim.

‘Toast.’ I have read the book, seen the movie, and now there is a stage play, first developed for the Edinburgh Fringe, later polished and perfected for a London audience. The book was rather heavy going, but this abridged version turns out to have both a sparkle of humour among the pathos and a paciness that the book lacked.

Toast,’ originally penned by British food writer, Nigel Slater, and adapted for the stage by Henry Filloux-Bennett, is a poignant romp through the childhood of a wannabe chef whose taste buds are alerted to the culinary world by a diet of burnt toast, Angel Delight and mince pies. A talented and lively cast of five takes on multiple roles to tell the tale of a special mother-son relationship enhanced by time spent cooking together; a relationship cut short when his mother, struggling with asthma, finally gives up the fight, leaving her nine-year-old son in the clumsy, emotionally-challenged hands of his homophobic father. The boy’s grief over his mother’s death is assuaged by the joys of cooking, his coming of age highlighted by kitchen warfare – a battle to the death to out-bake his evil stepmother.

Mixing monologue and dance at a cracking pace, ‘Toast gives the audience a multi-sensory experience. Pink-striped paper bags of lollies, platters of fruit tarts and sexually deviant walnut whips are handed to the audience at intervals throughout the evening, the rustling of bags and wrappers interrupting the performance for a moment or two, as we see, hear, smell, touch and taste our way through a sixties childhood of lemon sherbet, lemon tarts and lemon meringue pie.

The drama takes place entirely in the Slater’s kitchen, where we meet young Nigel (Giles Cooper of ‘The Lady in the Van’), in schoolboy shorts and tie, devouring his mother’s one cookbook and describing his childhood through the Proustian medium of food memories. Suspending disbelief over the adult sized Nigel in schoolboy attire is sometimes tricky, but overall, Cooper convincingly portrays a young boy’s childish foibles, eccentricities and awakening sexuality.

Lizzie Muncy, as Nigel’s gentle, domestically challenged mother, softly breaks our hearts as we watch her struggle desperately to hide her illness from her precious son and her anxious, uptight husband. Mrs Slater’s sorrowful courage is palpable, her acute awareness that she will have to leave her sensitive son to the mercies of a cruel world and an inadequate father, had me almost in tears. But the play moved swiftly on and we were soon swept up in the strange and jealous battle, between Aunty Joan and Nigel, for Mr. Slater’s limited attention.

Stephen Ventura as Nigel’s father, Tony, is the archetypal, stiff-upper-lip Brit, who cannot bring himself to show his son any physical affection. Instead, recognizing Nigel’s penchant for lollies, he leaves marshmallow ‘kisses’ on his pillow every night. Quickly recognizing and fearing that his son is a ‘pansy,’ Tony’s inexpressible grief at his wife’s death lurches into angry violence against a son whose preference for ‘girly’ sweets he is unable to understand or tolerate.

Nigel’s first crush is the gardener, played most appealingly by Jake Ferretti, who appears for only one scene, but reappears in several other roles, including a back up dancer cheerfully strutting across the stage in a stylized, dream-sequence dance routine, gloriously camp in a frilly green apron.

Then along comes Marie Lawrence as the coquettish Aunty Joan, who goes from fanatical cleaner to evil stepmother with the swish of a duster and a flick of her ubiquitous cigarette, a wriggle of her hips and a pout of ruby red lips. Slater’s stepsisters were apparently horrified at the portrayal of their mother as an over-sexed, OCD cleaning lady, but Lawrence creates a strong character, full of Kardashian drama, sex-appeal and pizzazz.
Several lesser figures are woven into the main story line as all the actors, bar Cooper, snap in and out of character, cleverly and wittily adopting extra personae and different costumes to expand the cast and the story’s scope.

The Other Palace is a wonderfully intimate theatre. I feel as if I am watching the story unfold from an armchair by the window. As the cast frequently makes eye contact or directs cheeky asides into the auditorium, we are drawn willingly into the inner circle, passing lolly bags and crumpling our Walnut Whips wrappers in unison.

Although a decade older than I, Slater’s foodie tales of his mother’s famous flapjacks and his father’s ill-fated experiments with an exotic jar of Spaghetti Bolognese ring a carillon of bells. The 1960s was a novel period in the history of British cuisine, filled with unfamiliar but innovative cooking, as Britain emerged from an era of domestic staff and World War II rationing that extended well into the sixties. Middle class housewives faced domestic chores and family meals in horrified ignorance, and with enormous gratitude for the likes of Marguerite Patten, Delia Smith and Elizabeth David. As British palates slowly broadened to encompass unfamiliar ingredients and foreign recipes, there was a huge culinary leap from the stodgy, tasteless nursery food of past generations.

Entertaining, tasty and poignant in equal measure, ‘Toast’ provides a delicious menu of human emotions and childhood memories, handed out with brisk, unsentimental humour, as Nigel is forced to navigate a cold new world bereft of his mum. Seen through the eyes of a child, the play, perhaps more than either book or movie, clearly depicts a child’s fascination with food and its endless possibilities, as well as his egocentric sense of loss at his mother’s death. While lollies, cakes and puddings are the icing on Nigel’s food-oriented childhood, the ubiquitous lemony tartness of his favourite recipes reminds us that all is not sugar and spice even in the sweetest family saga. It is a gripping portrayal of an unhappy, resentful kid growing up in a dysfunctional adult world, as young Nigel gradually learns to focus his emotions and enthusiasms on developing his culinary skills and shaping his future without the guiding hand of his beloved mother.

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