One of the hardest calls for a reviewer to make is where to draw the line between production and play. Can a problematic text be completely redeemed if the production is good or, for new pieces where the audience may not know what to expect, do we have a duty to comment on the work, script and all, so everyone goes in with their eyes open?
A narrative that turns rather bitter halfway through and never quite finds its balance again.
It’s a quandary I find myself in after stepping out of Nigel Slater’s Toast at the Traverse theatre. On the one hand, Toast is a multi-sensory feast of a production. The eyes are pleased by the luscious set and the wonderful choreography, the ears by a cracking soundtrack. The nose gets a treat with a little on-stage cookery incorporating lashings of garlic and butter. And the tastebuds are stimulated by a few edible plotpoints handed out by the cast and crew (a nice exception to the ‘no food in the theatre’ rule although underused by having both taste points within seconds of each other).
The cast are energetic and skilled, delivering their dialogue with commitment, and some of the conceits used on stage are really effective - I particularly enjoyed a ‘Top of the Form’ question session, determining which sweets are for girls and which are for boys, and an ethereal dance sequence between Nigel and his mother, played out on the kitchen units.
And yet, I came away feeling a little disappointed. Anyone who is familiar with Slater’s work will know how beautifully he speaks and writes about food but this is somewhat absent from this adaptation. Gone are most of the lyrical descriptions of his burgeoning love affair with food with the focus placed firmly on the difficult family relationships that sparked them, creating a bias that begins to impact on the quality of the play.
For example, despite the performers’ skill, many of the characters are quite one-note. This is particularly true of Slater’s father and his stepmother, Joan, both of whom spend most of the play as pantomime villains. True, Slater’s memoir is not kind to them - this is something he himself has apologised for – but as a grieving father and a woman taking on a difficult teenage son, it feels like more complexity and nuance could have been found in the direction of their characters, regardless of the source material.
Even Sam Newton as Slater suffers from this affliction. Newton has Slater’s tone and vocal tics down superbly and holds the stage like a seasoned pro but doesn’t have the chance to evolve much beyond his sheltered nine-year-old self. Slater is admirably unflinching in his self-portrait but, condensed down for this Fringe version of the play and without some of the subtleties of the book, he doesn’t come off as a sympathetic-enough leading man in the latter half. In fact, the only one of the cast that feels like her roles are fully fleshed out is Lizzie Muncey, who exudes a wonderful warmth as Nigel’s mother and excels at both tragedy and comedy as the play progresses.
Overall, the result is a narrative that turns rather bitter halfway through and never quite finds its balance again. For me, Toast was like an over-flavoured lemon souffle – beautiful and technically impressive but a little unsatisfying and with a few too many sour notes.