Nigel Slater: For the love of food
As Toast comes to Richmond theatre in October, we talk to Nigel Slater about how his powerful memoir was transformed into a play, and why his personal story struck such a chord…
Not just fodder for the stomach but a panacea for the soul, the power of food can take us back to happier times, evoking fond memories of the people we were with and where we ate it. Equally, a certain dish can cause ridiculous amounts of pain as we remember a favourite food of those we have loved and lost.
Writing his autobiography, Toast: The Story of a Boy’s Hunger, about his own early memories of food, Nigel Slater perfectly conjured up the complicated relationships we have with what we eat and what we cook – and the complicated relationships with our families, lovers and friends. It was phenomenally successful. The book went on to spawn a film and now a play, which has proved a big hit in the West End and is currently on tour.
The tale takes us on a culinary journey from 1960s Wolverhampton with Nigel’s growing obsession with food, his much-loved mother’s culinary disasters, and the subsequent rivalry Nigel has with his new stepmother.
His story resonated with many, with Nigel telling of the wrenching grief of losing his mum, his difficult relationship with his father and subsequent stepmother, and his awareness of his own homosexuality.
“When I first wrote the autobiography, I thought no one would be interested. But I got so many letters and emails from people who had been in those situations and could relate to it. Many people lose a parent, either they have passed away or through divorce. There are lots of kids who have someone they love and suddenly they are no longer there. In those days, and particularly at that age, you are bottling everything up.”
“People are much better now when it comes to talking about their feelings. But back then it just wasn’t the done thing,” says Nigel. Along with the food nostalgia – grilled grapefruit, Arctic Roll and jam tarts, some of his reflections are heart-breaking. They also caused some controversy with surviving family members who disputed his side of the story. Does he have any regrets about laying himself – and others, as he perceived them to be – out so openly?
“Not really, though with hindsight I probably should have realised that it was difficult for everybody: the fact that my mum was ill and she still wanted to look after her little boy, the fact that my stepmother had left her husband and went to live with my dad and she is suddenly having to look after this other child. I wish I had taken that on board.”
With the success of the film and now the play, Nigel has had a constant reminder of his life as it plays out on the stage. Is it painful to watch? “I’ve seen it enough times now that maybe I should feel differently but when you are watching someone playing your mum or yourself on stage it is emotional. It is so tactile, you could put you hand out and touch these characters. There are some sad moments, and times I don’t want to be reminded of. But equally there are moments that are so joyous and so happy I could watch them over and again.”
Nigel has had some involvement in the play although he is quick to point out that he was confident early on to leave it in the hands of director Jonnie Riordan and writer Henry Filloux-Bennett. “They got the story and the spirit of it. Theatre is obviously not my world but it has been an exciting and dazzling thing to do.”
The actors have consulted Nigel on how to portray his life but he wanted to see their own take on it. “I didn’t want them to feel they had to do every move, every bit of body language to be as Mum, Dad or young Nigel would have done it. I wanted them to bring their ideas to it and what they had taken on board about what the characters had been like from the book.”
The play comes to Richmond Theatre from October 21st until the 26th. Nigel is no stranger to the town. “When I first came to London I lived on Kings Road in Richmond with my brother. It was one of those things where I was meant to stay for a week but it ended up being six months. I have a huge warmth towards Richmond. Although it so close to London, I always feel like I’m on holiday here and you have this incredible green space on your doorstep,” says Nigel, who today lives in North London.
In our current climate, the play may well provide a welcome retreat from all the chaos around us with the audience given nostalgic treats during the performance. “Everything is so insecure right now and we don’t know what will happen next. The flavours and tastes of our childhood are taking on a new role. They are flavours that take us to a place when life was a bit safer and we felt more comfortable with the world. We pass bags of sweets around, things that people haven’t spent their money on since they were nine. It is lovely to see.”
Catch Nigel Slater’s Toast at Richmond Theatre.
Tour dates: www.nigelslaterstoast.co.uk/