What A Carve Up!

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

You may think that a scathing critique of Thatcher’s Britain is that last thing you need in the midst of ‘Lock Down 2’, but writer Henry Filloux-Bennett’s retelling of Jonathan Coe’s 1994 novel, What A Carve Up! will provide just the tonic for the winter nights ahead, whilst demonstrating how theatre companies are thinking outside the box in order to get their productions in front of an audience.

This collaboration between The Barn Theatre, The Lawrence Batley Theatre and The New Wolsey Theatre, under the sharp, slick direction of Tamara Harvey, sees Coe’s murder mystery reimagined as an investigative crime documentary.

The plot revolves around the gruesome murder at Winshaw Towers: the home of one the UK’s most powerful, wealthiest (and loathsome) families. On a cold, dark winters night in 1991, the family gather for the reading of a will. At the end of the night, six family members lay dead with their own previous evil deeds instrumental in their departures. The prime suspect for this macabre atrocity is Michael Owen (sadly not that one), a celebrated novelist brought in as biographer to reveal the Winshaw’s dirty secrets.

Told 30 years after the shocking events of that fateful evening, we get the case for the prosecution and the defence. For the defence: Owen’s son Raymond (Alfred Enoch) undertakes a spot of investigative journalism to not just prove his father’s innocence, but also to highlight the levels of corruption and wickedness at the heart of the Winshaw’s numerous business ventures: from the arms trade, to pension fraud, gutter journalism to public health scandals, they were involved in them all, and whilst many suffered, the family thrived, all under the stewardship of a Thatcher government.

The case for the prosecution, is the family’s sole surviving heir: Josephine Winshaw-Eaves (Fiona Button),  a vile, right-wing blogger, who has opinions on everything from Trump, to the Chancellor’s furlough scheme. Imagine a ‘roided’ up version of your least favourite talk radio host, and you’re near the mark. The Winshaw heiress is stating her case for Owen’s guilt in the form of a television interview, not too dissimilar to one of a grand old Duke that was on our TV screens a while back.

This is a fresh, bold, blackly comic look back at 1980’s Britain, which highlights just how little we’ve actually moved on. Despite a slightly slow start and at times convoluted plot, this an engaging whodunit, where its great pleasure derives from not finding out who the killer is, but more the motive for their actions, as we hear about each of the Winshaw’s shady deals, and the gruesome, yet original way they meet their maker, a crushed skull by a stack of newspapers, being just one to choose from.

The onscreen performances are superb. Enoch is an engaging, presence throughout; it’s a measured, understated turn. Button gives a suitably vile, comedic performance which anchors the production and really gets to the heart of what makes the Winshaw’s tick. Tamzin Outhwaite is equally impressive as the unnamed TV interviewer, whose sly glances and snide smile, make her the perfect inquisitor.

Like many big screen Agatha Christie adaptations, and even the 1961 British comedy-horror film from which the production takes its name, they always had an impressive ensemble cast and this production is no different; with the likes of  Robert Bathurst, Stephen Fry, Rebecca Front, Celia Imrie, Dervla Kirwan, Griff Rhys Jones, and Sir Derek Jacobi providing their vocal talents and breathing life into some of the story’s key players. It does provide a fun distraction as you try to work out who it is, however more than that, it gives the performance more weight, and a clear indication that what you’re watching is a big deal.

Original, ambitious, and most of all highly entertaining, What A Carve Up! is a fine example of how the theatre industry, like us all, is having to adapt to the Covid-19 landscape we find ourselves in, and whilst nothing beats the experience of a live theatrical experience, it sure is a bloody good understudy!

What a Carve Up! is available online at https://www.whatacarveup.com/ until the 29th November 2020

Writer Henry Filloux-Bennett talks TOAST

HFB

When Nigel Slater released his 2004 autobiography TOAST: The Story of a Boys Hunger, it’s doubtful he ever imagined it would be made into a BBC film let alone become a critically-award winning play which after wowing the West End is now touring the country to packed audiences every night.

Here at Opening Night we were lucky enough to catch up with writer Henry Filloux-Bennett ahead of the shows return to The Lowry to hear a little more about the process of taking the book from page to stage as well as what audiences can expect from this heart-warming adaptation which critics have described as ‘delicious’.

Opening Night: “How did you first become aware of the autobiography and did you read it with the intention of adapting it for the stage?”

Henry Felloux-Bennett: “I was a cook working in London, weirdly in the same hotel that Nigel works in at the end of the book, 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 not only did the story resonate because he has an interesting upbringing and then goes into cooking and I thought – ‘Oh that’s like me’, but also I didn’t have anything to do with theatre but I sort of wanted to do something in theatre, and I thought: ah, that could be the show.”

Toast 1

ON: “Once you’d decided to create the piece was it an instant yes from Nigel?”

HFB: “I tried originally to get the rights for a show in Edinburgh 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.”

ON: “Your perseverance clearly paid of as 10 years later Nigel finally gave his backing to the adaptation.”

HFB: “Yes, the Lowry was doing a festival called Week 53 and it was about coming-of-age, Nigel also turned 60 the year it started so I think that had something to do with it. I think also it was something to do with this festival because it wasn’t a big glamorous West End show. We were trying to create this small experience for a very limited number of people that I hoped showed I genuinely wanted to do it. I think a lot of adaptations happen because it’s going to make money – I think he worried about that, not that it would be a big cash cow but that it was cynical. I just thought, oh we can get some foodies to come and see this.”

Toast 4

ON: “What is the starting point when taking a book from page to stage?”

HFB: “I think one of the big challenges of adapting any book to stage is how you a make it interesting to watch. Obviously if you’re reading a book you can be totally absorbed in it. You can enjoy the characters and you can enjoy the plot, but actually when you’re faced with watching something that sort of takes it in a different direction. The challenge with TOAST 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 normal storytelling rules.”

ON: “Did Nigel have an absolute veto on anything?”

HFB: “Mainly language. There is a bit where they go to Bournemouth on holiday and there is a line about looking out on the sea and the guy who used to play Nigel once said ocean instead of sea. Apparently, that is a massive no-no because Nigel would never have said ocean in the 60s. It’s the details – like making the labels for the damson jam props. He made a lot of props. The general shape of the play he’s always been quite happy with because he understands that you send a book out into the world and it’s up to everyone else how they deal with it”.

Toast

ON: “Were you worried about Nigel Slater’s reaction to what you had produced?”

HFB: “I was terrified about Nigel’s response. I think you always think that what you’re doing you quite like but then you have to present it to people who’ve never read it before and you have to present it to the person who it’s about, who wrote the thing itself – that’s terrifying. 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. I might’ve massacred his memoir, which would’ve been awful. Touch wood, I haven’t done that. But he was very generous in saying do whatever you need to do. When I was writing it, I read an interview with Lee Hall, who wrote the screen play for the film. And Lee Hall basically said that you can’t care the person is still alive and you can’t care about the person reading it. You have to write the thing you need to write. If the person hates it you can change it, which he did a little bit, but you have to write the thing that you want to write and don’t worry that there’s a real-life Nigel Slater who will be there at some point. It was great advice, which I followed.”

Toast 2

ON: “Why do you think the tastes and smells are so important in both the autobiography and the play?”

HFB: “If you read the book, which you absolutely should, 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 chapters so we had to respond to that in the play.”

ON: “How involved has Nigel been in the process?”

HFB: “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. Oliver, who is the Executive Chef at The Lowry’s Pier Eight, worked very closely with Nigel 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.”

Toast 5

ON: “Does any cooking take place on stage?”

HFB: “Yes, I’m not going to tell you what. But there is a scene when we cook on stage. Have you ever seen Billy Elliot? In the script I wanted to copy the bit where he does the angry dance and he can’t express himself any other way. There’s a moment in the play when Nigel gets told something and he doesn’t know how to respond. In my head the only way he could’ve responded was to cook and so it’s meant to be the angry dance for Nigel. It’s a really interesting thing because there is no talking for nearly five minutes. It’s quite intense and Giles had to learn how to cook that dish perfectly. Hopefully it resonates and you’ll find it interesting, but for some people it’s the only bit that I didn’t write and it’s the bit that people cry at. That bit certainly gets people because they can smell and see. The sound of food cooking in a frying pan is amazing, especially in a theatre”.

TOAST returns to The Lowry where it first premiered in 2018 on Monday 11th November for a limited one week run until Saturday 16th November. Tickets available here.

Toast | Rehearsal images released

First look images from the rehearsal rooms of world premiere stage adaptation of Nigel Slater’s Toast have been released today.

Toast, which is a Week 53 commission adapted by Henry Filloux-Bennett and directed by Jonnie Riordan will vividly tell the story of Nigel Slater’s childhood through the tastes and smells he grew up with. Audience members will be invited to sample dishes and tastes which played a large part in Nigel’s life growing up in 1960’s suburban England.

From making the perfect sherry trifle, waging war over cakes through to the playground politics of sweets and the rigid rules of restaurant dining, this is a moving and evocative tale of love, loss and…toast.

On at The Lowry from Wed 23 May to Sat 2 June tickets available here.