REVIEW: Nigel Slater’s Toast, York Theatre Royal *****

Flour power: Katy Federman as Mum and Giles Cooper as Nigel in Nigel Slater’s Toast. Picture: Piers Foley

Nigel Slater’s Toast, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday, November 23. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

HERE is the challenge facing director Jonnie Riordan. “Think about how long it takes to actually make a piece of toast, and then how do you do that on stage when you’re trying to keep the audience engaged?” he says.

It brings a new meaning to pop-up theatre in York after the summer Elizabeth version at Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre, and Riordan and writer Henry Filloux-Bennett have made a wonderful job of adapting cookery writer Nigel Slater’s coming-of-age memoir for the stage.

Like Jonathan Watkins for Matt Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive, on tour at the Theatre Royal only two weeks ago, Riordan is both director and choreographer. However, whereas Watkins’s show took time to find its footing on a somewhat strange-looking set – was it a crater or a cracked cloud egg? – Toast is sure footed, even light on its feet from the start.

Nigel, meet Nigel!: Cookery writer Nigel Slater meets Giles Cooper, who plays his younger self on stage. Picture: Simon Annand

Nigel, our narrator, guides us through his story like Slater’s lovely writing leads you through his recipes and epicurean thoughts in his mellifluous books. Played by the delightful Giles Cooper in schoolboy tank top and short trousers, Nigel is nine and already drawn to the one cookery book in the Slaters’ Wolverhampton home: Marguerite Patten’s ground-breaking Cookery In Colour, a full-colour Sixties’ bolt out of the cordon bleu after the grey gravy of before.

From within the cream and brown Sixties’ kitchen of Libby Watson’s design, Cooper’s Nigel likes to orchestrate all the storytelling, stepping in and out of a scene to converse with the audience, but such is the skill of Filloux-Bennett’s writing that the events of his young life have a habit of pulling the rug from under him. At one point, his mother stops him in his tracks and tells him to re-trace his steps to relate the true, darker version of events.

There is abundant humour, absolutely true to Slater’s own tone in his books, but the darkness has to break through too, given what happened to Slater in his childhood and teenage years.

Table manners: Blair Plant’s Dad, left, Stefan Edwards’ waiter, Giles Cooper’s Nigel, Samantha Hopkins’ waitress and Katy Federman’s Mum in Toast

His love of food is omnipresent, and yes, we see toast popping up in real time and later Nigel making mushrooms on toast with a chef’s flair and precision in one so young. We enjoy the culinary sensations, and when Nigel is regaling us with the delights of sweets – amid his father’s insistence that certain sweets are for boys, others for girls – bags of sweets are passed around the audience. The real Nigel Slater had a bag by his feet as he sat in the dress circle, by the way!

Food is at the heart of Toast, glorious food and not so glorious food in the case of Nigel’s father’s first attempt at making spaghetti bolognaise, mountains of “sick-smelling” Parmesan dust et al. Part of the joy here  is having our own recollections of mishaps around our own kitchen tables.

Through food too, we see the difference between Nigel’s relationship with his Mum (Katy Federman), pretty much tied to the apron strings, such is their bond, and his abusive Dad (Blair Plant, back at his old Theatre Royal stamping ground).

What’s that on the plate? Nigel (Giles Cooper) nervously scans the spaghetti bolognaise served up by Dad (Blair Plant) as Mum (Katy Federman) looks on

Into the story comes the dreadful Joan (Samantha Hopkins) and assorted characters played by Stefan Edwards, as the first stirrings of Nigel’s sexuality play out.

Brilliant performances, a superb choice of soundtrack from La Mer to Dusty, and a finale as warm and toasty as toast make Toast a five-star treat, both measured and deeply flavoured like a Nigel Slater recipe.

Charles Hutchinson

Copyright of The Press, York

Theatre Royal stalwart Blair Plant pops up in Toast

Blair Plant, centre, with Giles Cooper and Katy Federman in Nigel Slater’s Toast. Picture: Piers Foley

ACTOR Blair Plant is touring for the first time in 20 years in Nigel Slater’s Toast. By a happy coincidence, the show brings him back to a theatre he knows very well, York Theatre Royal, from tomorrow.

He first worked on the stage crew 34 years ago while studying at York St John College (as the university was called then). 

“I’ve done regional theatre but only in one specific theatre, not touring,” says Blair. “Over the last six or seven years I’ve done a lot of work in the West End.

“Now I’ve changed agents for the first time in 15 years and my new agent said I’ve got to put myself about a bit more and perhaps take less comfortable jobs than the West End work I’ve been doing. Basically, to get out and get back on the road and be seen by more people.”

Toast has been adapted for the stage from food writer Nigel Slater’s book recounting his childhood and cooking ambitions. Blair knew “nothing at all” about the show and Slater’s life before the job came along, although they do have one thing in common: both come from Wolverhampton.

He plays Nigel Slater’s father, so when Slater watches the play, that understandably adds to Blair’s nervousness. “He had a complicated relationship with his father,” he says. “His father makes the children laugh and is a nice dad sometimes but then just flips and switches. You never know when that’s going to happen. He’s not a violent man but is unpredictable, short tempered”

Slater attended rehearsals. “He’s lovely. He baked a cake and brought it in for us,” recalls Blair.

Blair Plant, left, with Stefan Edwards, Giles Cooper, Samantha Hopkins and Katy Federman in Nigel Slater’s Toast, at York Theatre Royal from tomorrow. Picture: Piers Foley

Talking of things to eat, the actor is required to demonstrate how to eat a Walnut Whip at every performance, but don’t ask why! When you see the play, you will understand.

After eating so many in rehearsal, Blair “went off” Walnut Whips. A similar thing happened during his student days in York when he was an ice cream seller:  he swiftly stopped wanting to eat ice cream.

The York St John course that young Blair took was billed as “dance, drama, movement, film and television”. His ambition was to act, but his parents, who were funding him through university, preferred him to take an academic degree.

However, he saw working on the Theatre Royal stage crew during his student days as a means of gaining entry into theatre. 

He began as a follow-spot operator and LX technician before joining the stage crew. His break came when the touring company run by actors Kate O’Mara and Peter Woodward opened a show in York and the Theatre Royal stage crew built the set.

“I persuaded them to take me on tour with them as their touring carpenter. I did that for 13 weeks and touring all over the country was a wonderful experience,” he says. 

He was back at York when the same company asked if he would like to return as an acting assistant stage manager, an opportunity that enabled him to gain the all-important Equity union card. He toured with the company for four years, each time bringing a production to York, where he lived for 15 years after falling in love with the city during his student days.

Blair Plant, centre, with Giles Cooper and Samantha Hopkins. Picture: Pierce Foley

He can also claim some responsibility for Damian Cruden becoming artistic director at York Theatre Royal. Blair had been directed by the Scotsman in John Godber’s Bouncers at Hull Truck Theatre and suggested him to theatre bosses.  The rest, as they say, is history. Damian was artistic director for 22 years until he left earlier this year.

Blair worked with him several more times, including in The Railway Children at both Waterloo and King’s Cross venues over a four-year period. “Damian sent me the script before it went on at the Railway Museum in York. I’m terrible at lifting a story off the page and didn’t get it at all and said it wasn’t for me. I didn’t realise how immense the show was going to be,” he recalls.

When the award-winning production, which featured a real steam train, transferred to London, Blair wanted to be part of it. He spent four years playing first the dissident Russian intellectual, Mr Szczepansky, then the Father in York playwright Mike Kenny’s adaptation of E. Nesbit’s book. “I really, really loved it. It was a really lovely job,” says Blair.

He names his most challenging role at York – and of his career – as Lenny in Alan Bleasdale’s comedy Having A Ball, where he had to strip on stage and perform a six-minute monologue totally naked. “That was difficult to do in the rehearsal room, but by the time we got on stage, I’d got over being naked and so had the other actors. It was the audience who had to get over it.”

The most fun he has had was in Bouncers. “The buzz from that gig – you couldn’t sleep until three in the morning because as an actor you are so high and very fit,” he says.

Now Blair is popping up in Toast on his latest return to York.

Nigel Slater’s Toast, York Theatre Royal, November 19 to 23, 7.30pm, plus 2pm, Thursday, and 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

By Raymond Crisp

REVIEW: The Woman In Black, York Theatre Royal *****

“Scream the house down for a ticket” to see Daniel Easton, left, and Robert Goodale in The Woman In Black. Picture: Tristram Kenton

REVIEW: The Woman In Black, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

AFTER terrifying visits in 2013 and 2014, York Theatre Royal has gone back to Black for a wintry chill in 2019. Scream the house down for a ticket; this ghost story is still the best in the fright night business, although Gaslighting and the Grand Opera House-bound revival of Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories are guaranteed to scare you witless too.

Stephen Mallatratt’s splendidly theatrical stage adaptation began life as a bonus Christmas show at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in 1987 in novelist Susan Hill’s hometown of Scarborough, and this latest touring production still retains its original director and designer, Robin Herford and Michael Holt. Well, if it ain’t broke, etc etc.

It is an old-fashioned piece, but delightfully so, with no hi-tech special effects. Instead, the programme states “harmless stage smoke and sudden loud effects are used in this production”. What matters is how they are used: the smoke gradually envelops you in a disorientating murk; the sound effects go off all around you, whether the approach of a horse’s hooves or jolting, silence-shattering screams. Cue shrieks, gasps and nervous audience laughter that ripple outwards through the stalls to the dress circle in waves.

The horror, the horror: Daniel Easton as The Actor, increasingly haunted, just like the audience, in The Woman In Black. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Mallatratt’s two-hander begins in a dusty theatre as elderly lawyer Arthur Kipps (Robert Goodale) employs a young actor (Daniel Easton) to help him exorcise the fear that has filled his soul for more than 50 years. “For my health, my reason,” he says, “It must be told. I cannot bear the burden any longer.”

That burden is a stultifying obsession with the curse that he believes a spectral woman in a black cape with a wasted face has placed on his family. The Actor is initially sceptical, his mood light and cocky, yet the depth of Kipps’s desire to recover his peace of mind starts to grip the thespian too, and in turn the audience…whether a newcomer or a returnee glutton for more spine shivers.

The terrifying tale with the terrible toll is told in a theatrical re-enactment rendered with only two chairs, a skip of papers, a hanging rail of costume props, dust sheets over the stage apron and a frayed curtain.

Behind this gauze partition are the stairwell, passages, rooms and contents of the haunted Eel Marsh House, as the Actor plays young Arthur Kipps and stage novice Mr Kipps adapts himself to all manner of other parts, while growing ever more paralysed by resurgent fears as the story unfolds of his ill-fated errand as a young solicitor.

“A celebration of the craft of acting”: Daniel Easton in The Woman In Black. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Sebastian Frost’s restless sound effects align with Kevin Sleep’s lighting design, where shadows and darkness wrestle with light for dominance, as Easton and Goodale re-create Kipps’s flesh-creeping journey to the eerie marshlands: an isolated place forever at odds with its wretched self.

As much as The Woman In Black is a ghost story first and foremost, in Mallatratt’s hands, it is also a celebration of the craft of acting, the power of storytelling and the role of the imagination.

Designed as a play within a play, the drama within takes over from the act of making it. You never see the horse and cart or a dog called Spider, but you feel their presence and you rise to applaud Easton and Goodale for having you wholly in their grip, as Hertford’s direction steers this eerie ghost ride with grave concern but dark humour too.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Copyright of The Press, York