Nigel Slater’s Toast, Lawrence Batley Theatre Online

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Perhaps, like Nigel Slater, your formative years were enhanced by a doting Mum with a gastronomic bent. Not me, dear readers. My mother was and is the laziest non-cook who ever lived. A typical meal might be a dry, pallid chop with a side of foul tin-sourced butter beans or, on special occasions, a roast dinner in which the peas were put on first.

In Slater’s online childhood memoir, illustrated like the pages of a high-end cook book, with watercolour renderings of tableaus, we learn his Dad once attempted a Spaghetti Bolognese. Apparently it smelt like sick. My Mum’s version looked like Italian cuisine recreated by an alien based on the oral histories of the last humans. If Nigel had grown up in my house, he wouldn’t be a cook, he’d be like me – addicted to junk food and the psychological crutch that helps wash it down: Diet Coke.

Toast is a sentimental and unashamedly middle class memoir, that’s narrated with a knowing naivety. Nigel, played by Giles Cooper, straddles Just William and J.K Rowling. He starts with an impossibly twee existence – Mum extolling the joys of jam tarts and crafted sweets at Christmas from the old village shop, then becomes, following her death (in which one could read he’s complicit, given the ambiguous note sounded), Harry Potter; relocated, and stuck with an emotionally negligent guardian and his self-involved and insecure new girlfriend.

Along the way he interacts with rejected Rowling characters like Worrell Blubb, pursues his love of cooking, is resoundingly mocked for doing so, as it’s considered a female preoccupation, before finally realising he’s gay. Nigel then decamps to London, Dick Whittington style, and you know the rest, if, like me, you’ve received one of his books as an unwanted Christmas gift from a relative who didn’t have a clue what to get me, because they didn’t ask, so grabbed the first thing they saw on a visit to WH Smiths.

If you’re in the right mood, Toast is, in turns a, er, warm and crusty online play that’s chock-full with relatable vignettes and cloying pathos. Like a piece of toast, it’s pretty thin when you think about it, but it’s the stuff that’s lashed on top that makes the difference. In this case, a boy’s noble attempt to stay ahead of tragedy and disappointment by focusing on the thing he loves, namely pleasuring the taste buds.

Anyone who’s had a genuinely traumatic childhood, marred by dysfunctionality and domestic disturbance, may struggle to accept the implicit level of anomie and oppression suggested by the coy youth’s recollections, but Toast – buoyed by mems of Nigel’s Mam (not to be confused with Nigel’s Mum’s mams), shows us how a foodie’s consciousness gets cooked, with simple ingredients and easy to follow steps.

Toast is broadcasting online until July 31st 2020. Go to www.thelbt.org for more information and to buy tickets.

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