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by on 22 October 2019

The Food of Love


by Henry Filloux-Bennett, based on the book by Nigel Slater

PW Productions and Karl Sydow, Richmond Theatre, until 26 October

Review by Matthew Grierson

In the 1960s and 1970s, long before British people had iPhones and Instagram and emojis, the only way they could express their feelings was through food. Yet the humble national palate, all bread and baked goods and biscuits, proves highly articulate in this impressive, life-affirming adaptation of cook Nigel Slater’s hit memoir.

The relationship between young Nigel (Giles Cooper) – clad in sleeveless pullover and shorts à la Blue Remembered Hills to evoke the child the actor plays – and Mum (Katy Federmen) is one based on their shared experience at worktop and hob. The son’s enthusiasm makes up for the avowed shortcomings in his mother’s expertise, and the baking of jam tarts and mince pies binds them together. Dad (Blair Plant) meanwhile has fussy rules about what and how one should eat, memorably playing out as an episode of Top of the Form in which the contestants have to correctly gender confectionery as either ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ sweets.

(L-R) Katy Federman, Samantha Hopkins, Stefan Edwards, Giles Cooper - photo credit Piers Foley

The second-act appearance of Dad’s fancy woman Joan (Samantha Hopkins) on the scene then gives rise to a cookery conflict between son and stepmother, escalating from condiments to entire dessert trolleys. There’s even an excruciating but hilarious moment where Dad and Joan eat walnut whips in a manner bordering on the erotic, much to the embarrassment of Nigel. But we can tell how much he still cares for his Dad in the form of the impressive wedding cake he makes the couple, a gesture all the more poignant because he has used the Christmas cake recipe he and his mother once shared.

The Slaters’ feelings are also given physical form in the set, resembling a sparkling showroom kitchen – the kind in which the aspirational family long to feel at home. But the units are more than a workspace, more than status symbols, and are swung out into a range of charming dance routines, their wheels keeping pace with the cast’s effortless footwork.

For the food of love would be incomplete without its music, and the numbers that accompany the production evoke the period in which Nigel was growing up, and his own story in particular. The Crystals’ ‘Then He Kissed Me’ is an effective score for his first romantic encounter, and the anachronistic leap ahead to Talking Heads’ ‘Psycho Killer’, soundtracking his culinary arms race with Joan, can be forgiven because it is such fun.

Samantha Hopkins - photo credit Piers Foley (2)

This joyous and playful spirit is shared with the audience through a fourth wall that is not so much broken as entirely knocked through to make way for a kitchen extension. Nigel’s monologues are delivered so frequently to us that his exchanges with his parents are at risk of being asides themselves. There is also a danger that these speeches become the smug account of a middle-aged man nostalgically recalling his childhood. But the device is prevented from being wearing by having the other characters interrupt him or even remark wryly on Nigel’s habit  of self-presentation (‘Who is he talking to?’ ‘He does this a lot.’)

It helps, too, that Cooper is never less than endearing as the infant and later teenage boy, and any self-satisfaction is always that of a child trying to take charge of his own story rather than a comfortable adult relating it as an after-dinner speech. As exuberant as his delivery is, Cooper is also a master of the telling look or expressive silence; similarly, a sudden frenzy of activity in making Christmas cake crumbles away in the desperation of wanting to hold on to the mother he is about to lose.

(L-R) Katy Federman, Giles Cooper - photo credit Piers Foley

As Nigel’s Mum, Katy Federman is just as wonderful as her offspring, conveying a depth of character in declining health with a delicacy of touch throughout. Her comic timing is deft, and she is as capable as her son of making a glance speak volumes, whether in endurance of her husband’s idiosyncrasies or in flirty admiration of gardener Josh (Stefan Edwards). The high point is a worktop dance between mother and child, punningly enough to the strains of Charles Aznavour’s ‘La Mer’.

With the passing of Mrs Slater, Federman also proves admirably adaptable in the form of Nigel’s subsequent surrogate mothers, such as home economics teacher Miss Adams – an hilariously dipsomaniac turn in which she rails against tinned custard – or Doreen, the big-hearted cook at the local hotel where Nigel apprentices himself.

In a play where the cast is already given to distribute sweeties among the audience, Nigel’s Dad could so easily have been a pantomime villain, with his commanding presence and sudden anger. But Blair Plant’s sympathetic performance, and Henry Filloux-Bennett’s script, make him a much more nuanced character: the aspirational factory worker who joins the masons, makes a failed attempt to cook spaghetti Bolognese (the parmesan ruins it because ‘it smells like sick’), and is literally floored by his wife’s death.

Even though we see him capable of the worst – there’s a latent homophobia that surfaces whenever his son does anything remotely ‘girly’, and a sudden outburst that sees him repeatedly beat the poor boy – we understand these are the reactions of a man repressed, whose historical moment does not give him any other means of expression than a stiff upper lip and his fists. His temper is cut with a tenderness that complicates Nigel’s relationship with him, and ours. His unexpected death marks a believable climax to the emotional journey of the play: Nigel marks his sudden independence by devising a new dish on stage in front of us, the aroma of mushrooms, butter and toast drifting across the auditorium.

Giles Cooper - photo credit Piers Foley

If Nigel and his parents are the chefs and maître d’ of Toast, the no-less-important serving staff are Samantha Hopkins and Stefan Edwards, who each take on a succession of swing parts (some of them actual waiters). As Joan, Hopkins affords the character enough particularity to be more than merely a wicked stepmother, as she successfully weaponises her homemaking to oust dust, and the ghost of Mum, from the Slater household, essaying some precision dancing into the bargain.  As a Midlander myself, though, I think it’s a little unfair that she’s the only one charged with having to land the local accent (as though this were some signifier of her hated status for young Nigel).

Edwards in turn plays a roster of young men from handsome gardener Josh – sacked by a troubled Dad for having undressed in front of his son – to schoolmate Worrall and Doreen’s ballet-dancing son, with whom Nigel shares a first tentative kiss. It’s a versatile contribution, a magic ingredient that helps the show to rise.

So, think of it less as a cliché and more as a favourite dish when I say that Toast is a perfect recipe, its mixture of sweet and savoury flavours producing a satisfying and still surprising evening’s repast.

Matthew Grierson
October 2019

Photographs © Piers Foley

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