Toast review – a fresh twist on Nigel Slater's childhood tales

Nigel Slater’s feted memoir has been reheated before now as a winning television drama and a stage play, the latter coming with wafting kitchen smells that connect all the food of Slater’s boyhood, family life and coming of age.

Henry Filloux-Bennett, who adapted the stage show, brings us this latest version, produced by the Lawrence Batley theatre in Huddersfield and The Lowry, in Salford. It bills itself as “part radio play, part animated film” but seems like an off-shoot of the stage show, too, with the same director, Jonnie Riordan, and lead actor, Giles Cooper, who reprises the role of Slater. There is no younger actor playing Slater as a child in this production so he sounds adult from the start, but Cooper’s narration sweeps us in.

Viewers receive a recipe card written by the celebrity chef, which in theory adds a sensory element to this already flavoursome story, but in reality is a prosaic email containing three recipes that does not add to the sensory drama. Still, the animations by Dean Kendrick and Mark Kendrick combine with the sumptuous descriptions of childhood dishes and recipes to become their own delicious thing. The Proustian madeleines in young Slater’s life are home-made jam tarts, mushrooms on toast and Walnut Whips that conjure up 1960s Englishness and the culinary remembrance of things past.

Heavy helpings of nostalgia … Nigel Slater. Photograph: Jenny Zarins

Slater’s mother (Lizzie Muncey) dies in his childhood and food is intertwined with that maternal love and loss. Even if she is no great shakes in the kitchen, their cooking sessions seem to be where his passion stems from and there are heavy helpings of nostalgia as mother and son go shopping for crystallised figs and Turkish delights or make pastry. That sugary tone hollows out into a colder, harder story of grief and loneliness after she dies, but it is always accompanied by the joys and comforts of cooking.

Sketches are drawn on the screen, coloured in and then washed away, newspaper adverts come alive, recipes are playfully written across images and there is a slow focus to the camerawork in some of the most emotional scenes. Sound effects add to its sensuousness, from the stirring of brandy into Christmas cake batter to popping toast and boiling pasta.

Alongside Slater’s growing obsession for home economics at school, there is his father’s (Stephen Ventura) buzzing anxiety over his son’s sexuality – the young Slater is not allowed to buy fairy drops at the sweet shop and at at one point says: “You can’t go round eating girls’ sweets, what will people think?” Joan, the cleaner-turned-stepmother (Marie Lawrence) adds to the domestic conflict and his competitive cooking with her brings a comic “food war” but also trauma.

The smell of baking is “like a blanket you want to wrap yourself in”, says Slater and it feels so here. Illustrations are simple and static but they gain emotional depth when set against the brutal undertows of the narrative – and they have a misty-eyed, mouth-watering power so that even a digestive biscuit is a trigger for grief, and spaghetti hoops come saturated with loneliness.

Toast begins with a recipe for mince pies and ends with it too, though Slater has made a big emotional journey by then, from a lonely nine-year-old in Wolverhampton to the steps of the Savoy, a young man on his way to becoming the chef of today.

Toast is available online from 10-31 July.

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