Ahead of the opening of Nigel Slater’s Toast at The Other Palace, Jonathan Penney caught up with director Jonnie Riordan, director and actor Giles Cooper, who is portraying Nigel, to find out more about this adaptation:

Nigel Slater – author, journalist and The Observer’s cookery writer for the last twenty-five years. His memoir has won six major awards and was adapted into a film starring Freddie Highmore and Helena Bonham-Carter. Now it’s a critically acclaimed play that premiered at The Lowry and made its mark on Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2018 with a sold-out run at the Traverse Theatre.

And it’s on in London at The Other Palace. I took the opportunity to catch up with director Jonnie Riordan and actor Giles Cooper, who plays Nigel Slater himself in this stage adaptation:

Nigel Slater's Toast Other Palace

Stephen Ventura, Giles Cooper & Lizzy Muncey (image courtesy of Simon Annand)

What are the key themes that you want to bring out in Nigel Slater’s Toast?

Jonnie: “Toast started out its life as an article, which grew into a published memoir, a radio play, a film and now, it’s been adapted for the stage by Henry Filloux-Bennett. The tagline for the book is ‘the story of a boy’s hunger’.

“For the play we say it’s ‘a play about growing up, with food’.

“At its heart this is a coming of age story, about finding out who you want to be and what you want to do with your life. For me as the director, I’ve always felt like Nigel Slater’s story always created the nostalgic pangs from looking at old photographs, a longing to dive back into that memory and relive it, to hold the people and in our case also taste the food!”

Nigel Slater's Toast Other Palace

Giles Cooper (image courtesy of Simon Annand)

How has the story changed when adapting it from biography to screen to stage?

Jonnie: “Henry’s adaptation is so loyal to not just Toast the book, but to Nigel. Henry really did digest everything Nigel ever wrote – there are lovely references to lots of Nigel’s other works in the play (Eating For England, Christmas Chronicles).

“A big question you have to ask when creating anything for theatre is why? Why could this piece be told better on stage than on the page or screen?

“Our production is bursting with a child’s imagination, the characters created with the sense that we are seeing them through that Nigel’s eyes. There is also a huge introduction of movement to the play; it’s impossible to actually cook 90% of what we talk about in the play in real time, so swaps and sequences with military precision have had to be created to show the coming together of dishes and the joy of cooking that inspired Nigel to become who he is today.”

Nigel Slater's Toast Other Palace

Lizzy Muncey & Giles Cooper (image courtesy of Simon Annand)

When creating this play, do you interpret the text differently, knowing that it is based on real experience?

Jonnie: “Having Nigel on board, and to have been able to work so closely with him, means that we had a bottomless resource. The fact it is based on his real experiences meant we could be really detailed. However on the very first rehearsal I found myself talking about Nigel the character with Nigel the person sat behind me. It stimulated a really brilliant conversation about allowing Nigel to be a character – in actual fact that’s how Nigel was able to write so honestly himself about his experiences.”

How does it feel to play out the story of Nigel Slater, someone who has lived through it and will watch you portray him on stage?

Giles: “I’m not going to lie, it is massively nerve wracking knowing Nigel will be watching this. However, he has been a part of the process since its inception and on my first day in rehearsals he was there to welcome me to the company. Since then he’s popped in and out (occasionally with cake) and answered any of my questions about his past. He’s such a generous, intelligent and funny man that my nerves aren’t quite so bad now. Hopefully he’ll enjoy my performance.”

Nigel Slater's Toast Other Palace

Lizzy Muncey & Giles Cooper (image courtesy of Simon Annand)

Do either of you have particular foods, or culinary experiences, that are evocative of your childhood or your past?

Giles: “Unsurprisingly there are countless foods referenced in the show that I attribute with my own upbringing. Especially Angel Delight – c’mon, who didn’t love that growing up? Oh, and my Mum’s spag bol.”

Jonnie: “Who doesn’t remember the theatre of making Angel Delight?! Nigel has since told me that scientifically there was no need to whisk the thing as furiously as I remember my Dad doing. Apparently you can gently stir in the powder and leave it to set in the fridge and it will come out just the same. I haven’t tried it. I don’t think I could – whisking it for so long was all part of the fun.”

Nigel Slater's Toast Other Palace

Marie Lawrence, Jake Ferretti, Giles Cooper & Lizzy Muncey (image courtesy of Simon Annand)

Why do you think that food is so evocative of memory? It seems as though this idea is being explored both on and off-West End at present, with the Broadway transfer of Waitress hitting the Adelphi Theatre.

Giles: “Our experiences with food, especially when young, stay with us throughout our lives. They are the foundations of our appetites. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that audiences are happy to jump back in time and be reminded of forgotten tastes. There is a scene in Ratatouille when the stern, cold critic tries the simple, homely dish and experiences such a powerful memory recall his entire outlook on life transforms. That’s it. That feeling. It can happen to everyone.”

Jonnie: “Our senses are so deeply connected to our memories. For me walking past someone blowing a face full of cigarette smoke my way (although irritating), can remind me so urgently of my Grandad. The same is true of food – smells and tastes take us back and chemically alter the way we’re feeling. It’s all part of the fun of our show, as we undertake the task of giving our audiences a few bitesize treats, delivered by the cast with love at key points during the show.”

Nigel Slater's Toast Other Palace

Lizzy Muncey & Giles Cooper (image courtesy of Simon Annand)

What do you want the audience to take away from the performance?

Giles: “An honest slice of Nigel Slater and a great night out”.

Jonnie: “I hope it takes people back to their own childhoods, or their parents, or their grandparents. I hope audiences are moved by the play. Like life, there is tragedy, but there is also a huge amount of joy and fun throughout.”

Nigel Slater’s Toast plays at The Other Palace until 3 August 2019. For more information or to buy tickets, please visit the venue website.