Review - Toast at The Other Palace
"It is impossible not to love someone who makes toast for you." So says Nigel Slater in his memoir, and indeed as the audience walks into The Other Palace, the smell of perfect on-the-brink-of-burned toast wafts through the foyer to envelop them in comfort and nostalgia.
These are the enduring sentiments during this two-hour comic and sensory experience. Following a young boy's story through childhood, Toast hits many of the cultural touchpoints of 1960s Britain; Parma Violets and Bovril, The Telegraph and Quality Street. It also invites the audience to participate in this celebration of childhood pleasures with penny sweets and Walnut Whips for all!
Based on the memoir by the acclaimed British food writer Nigel Slater, Toast recounts Nigel's childhood through stories of the food that shaped him. Nigel is a nine-year-old boy who finds joy in his family kitchen, reading the Marguerite Patten cookbook, growing radishes and discovering the exotic, perplexing dish of spaghetti bolognese for the first time. His greatest love is baking with his mother, but when she becomes ill Nigel must navigate the difficulties of growing up, grieving and discovering his identity as a young man through the memories and recipes she leaves behind.
Jonnie Riordan's production has the colourfulness and energy of a show like Jersey Boys, incorporating 60s rock and pop music and extremely mannered choreography that makes for a dynamic, textured show. These dance sequences are quite hilarious, thanks in no small part to Jake Ferretti who plays his roster of secondary characters with a brilliantly camp pizzazz. On some occasions, these scenes become too over-the-top and faintly ridiculous so that the performances slip from fun and nostalgic to simply childish.
Indeed, with the bright, linoleum-decked kitchen setting and the intimate tiered seating of the theatre, Toast unavoidably has the feel of a children's cookery show, as though we were a CBBC studio audience.
Giles Cooper does a good job of playing a nine-year-old, leading the audience through the story with his energetic first-person narration. He conveys a child's curiosity, need for attention (from his mother and from the audience) and is eccentric in the way that small boys often are, keeping a pocketbook of lists of things like smells and table manners.
However, there are moments when the young Nigel's lexicon slips into something more mature, and so the illusion is broken; and when we see this family together on their beach holiday or sitting around the table with their adult-sized nine-year-old son, there is something unavoidably weird about this man-child in schoolboy shorts and long socks.
Whilst the production never quite manages to strike the tragic note that the plot would require, Toast is a fun celebration of food and how our childhood experiences of it shape us. Riordan has made a brave effort to incorporate food into the production, and whilst this is not always smooth (sweet wrappers could be heard amongst the audience for ten minutes after the generous distribution of pick 'n' mix) the audience is undeniably engaged and invested throughout this joyful play that puts the kitsch in kitchen.
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