Writer Henry Filloux-Bennett talks to Frankly My Dear UK about adapting Nigel Slater’s memoir for the stage
When Nigel Slater released his memoir TOAST: THE STORY OF A BOY’S HUNGER back in 2004, little did he know the impact it would have. Of course, many expected the book to be a best-seller, which it was – Slater is one of Britain’s best-loved food writers and presenters after all. But few predicted it being made into a BBC film, or even making the leap from page to stage as a critically-acclaimed play, resulting in a five-month-long run in London’s West End.
For those unfamiliar with the best-selling memoir, TOAST is essentially the story of Slater’s genesis. Vividly told through the tastes, smells and stories of his childhood, it tells of a young boy’s love for his mother and the love, loss and toast she left behind. This moving and evocative tale inspired Henry Filloux-Bennett, an aspiring playwright to adapt the best-seller into a critically acclaimed play which is now heading out on a new UK tour.
“I was a cook working in London, weirdly in the same hotel that Nigel [Slater] works in at the end of the book” explains Filloux-Bennett in an exclusive interview with Donna Kelly from Frankly My Dear UK.
“I was knackered as kitchen hours are stupidly long and I didn’t have any money so I had to live outside of London and commute in. To keep me awake, I would read a book. I was given TOAST one Christmas and it was the first book I picked up as I left one day. I just started reading it on the bus back and forth from the kitchen and it was a story that really resonated with me.”
I just started reading it on the bus back and forth from the kitchen and it was a story that really resonated with me.
This was back in 2008 when Filloux-Bennett was working as a chef at London hotel. Inspired by the writing, and with an interest of eventually moving into theatre, Filloux-Bennett approached Slater for the rights to turn the book into a play, the first of many refusals which Filloux-Bennett now looks on as a blessing.
“I tried to get the rights for a show in Edinburgh [Fringe Festival] but Nigel said no, thank God because ten years later, the play became much more of a considered thing. Back then, I would have just done it in two hours and hoped for the best. It would have been rubbish so thank God he did say no”
Slater’s refusal thankfully didn’t put Filloux-Bennett off, who continued to approach Slater until his eventual acceptance in 2008, giving the aspiring playwright permission to adapt the story for The Lowry’s biennial Week 53 Festival.
“The Lowry was doing a festival called Week 53 and it was about coming-of-age. It wasn’t a big glamorous West End show, it was a small experience for a very limited number of people. I hoped that showed that I genuinely wanted to do it, that it wasn’t just an adaptation to make money. Nigel also turned 60 the year it started so I think that had something to do with it.”
Filloux-Bennett set about turning the 256-page book into a two-hour play, taking apart the text and carefully crafting it into a multi-sensory experience.
“I went to a Travelodge and got out my post-its. There were several themes I wanted to explore and I wrote down the page numbers that related to those themes. The initial writing of it was really matter of fact, a bit like a jigsaw puzzle.”
“The challenge with TOAST – if you’ve read it – is that it’s not a narrative-based book, it skips around quite a lot. Finding a journey to go on, from start to finish, was a massive challenge because it doesn’t flow in a linear way. But that’s what made it more fun as well because I didn’t have to stick to normally storytelling rules.”
While Filloux-Bennett admits he took some liberties with the text – the scene in which Nigel dances with his mother in the kitchen was actually based on Filloux-Bennett’s childhood rather than Slater’s – one element he was keen to keep was the way Slater uses senses like sight, smell and taste, to evoke memories and nostalgia. Just like the memoir itself, food remains centre stage in the stage play.
Everyone knows the smell of certain things… If you think about it, everyone can tell what toast smells like, just when it’s just starting to burn a little bit. All of those things are in his [Slater’s] chapters so we had to respond to that in the play.
“If you read the book you’ll know that all the chapters are named after food, like Apple Pie, Marshmallows or Digestive Biscuits. Angel Delight was what I responded to when I read it. Butterscotch Angel Delight is probably the best thing ever invented, it’s an amazing pudding and it takes five minutes to make – who wouldn’t love it? It’s those memories – and the smells. Everyone knows the smell of certain things. If you open a packet of digestives, you know that smell. The same with toast. If you think about it, everyone can tell what toast smells like, just when it’s just starting to burn a little bit. All of those things are in his [Slater’s] chapters so we had to respond to that in the play.”
One way in which Filloux-Bennett and Director Jonnie Riordan did just that was to include food. Throughout the duration of the performance, the audience is invited to try tastes from Slater’s childhood, from old fashioned sweets and Walnut Whips to lemon meringue tart and mince pies. A brave decision which posed its own challenges.
“The play started at The Lowry and we had 150 to 160 people in a performance. Now we’ve got 400 people a performance – how on earth do you feed 400 people a night? I think it’s difficult enough to give everyone one piece of food but it’s really difficult to give everyone five bits of food, which is what they had at The Lowry. Almost impossible.”
Of course, the answer was to invite the man himself – Nigel Slater – down to the theatre to get involved with the dishes.
“Oliver, who is the Executive Chef at The Lowry’s Pier Eight, worked very closely with Nigel [Slater] and James [Thompson], our Food Director, to create things that everyone would get to taste. Nigel came up for tastings and was like “this bit needs this” and “it needs a bit more sharpness in the lemon meringue tarts” so he was really involved. I think how we got through it, with massive collaboration.”
And it wasn’t just the food Slater got involved with. From amending details in the text to assisting with prop making, Filloux-Bennett says Slater has been heavily involved in the play from the start.
“He was literally involved from day one. He was there for the workshop week with The Lowry six months before we made the show and then he was there for every step of the way with the food. I think the tech period for him was the most exciting bit because he works in TV so he’s not used to being involved with how the sets get made. At The Lowry, he made half the props with us. He was literally in the dressing room making labels. I’ve still got the label he made for the Damson Jam bottle, it’s my favourite thing.”
Yet despite his involvement, Filloux-Bennett admits he was scared of Slater’s initial reaction when he first read the play.
“I was terrified about Nigel’s response to it. Thankfully he was very nice about it. He said he wouldn’t read it until I was happy with it which was a massive bonus because we didn’t know each other and I might have completely massacred his memoir which would have been awful. Touch wood I haven’t done that [laughs] but he was very generous in saying do whatever you need to do.”
I was terrified about Nigel’s response to it. Thankfully he was very nice about it.
Clearly, Filloux-Bennett got to the heart of the story, impressing even Slater himself, particularly with the ending.
“The ending in the book is not the same as the film or the play. I’m really delighted that Nigel thinks that the ending of the play is the nicest ending, even over the book which I’m really touched by. The reason I knew how to do that was because Nigel said in an interview that the book was him saying sorry to his mum. There’s a thing that happens in the play, there’s usually a few gasps when it happens, where you can’t believe that what has happened. Nigel still regrets that and the book is his way of saying sorry.”
But it isn’t just Slater who was touched by the play. TOAST has inspired audiences up and down the UK, with a successful run at The Other Palace in London resulting in a new UK tour, opening at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield where Filloux-Bennett is now Director and Chief Executive.
“There is a scene in the play where we cook on stage. In the script, I wanted to copy the scene in BILLY ELLIOT where he has the angry dance and he can’t express himself through any other way. There’s a moment in the play where Nigel gets told something and he doesn’t know how to respond. In my head, the only way he could have responded was to cook and so it’s the angry dance for Nigel really. It’s a really interesting scene because there’s no talking for nearly five minutes, it’s quite intense and he had to learn how to cook that dish perfectly. For some people, it’s the only bit – the bit that I didn’t write – that people cry at. That bit certainly gets people because they can smell it, they can see it and they can hear the sound of stuff frying in the frying pan. It’s quite an amazing thing.”
Nigel Slater’s TOAST runs at the Lawrence Batley Theatre until 24 August then tours nationally until 7 December 2019.
Donna is the Founder and Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she works as a digital marketing specialist, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub. Loves Formula 1, prosecco and life.