Writer Henry Filloux-Bennett talks TOAST

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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.”

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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.”

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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”.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

Marshmallow Laser Feast presents ‘IRIS’

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Probing, enlightening, hypnotic and playful, ‘IRIS’ – the unique digital art installation – is a mesmerising sensory experience that visitors to the Lowry are going to ADORE! Last night was our first opportunity to see it, FEEL it, and to fall in love with it at the world premiere, as well as to meet the Director of this laser and robotic feast, Ersin Han Ersin.

Fresh from a win at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival for the virtual reality experience ‘Treehugger: Wawona’, Ersin had completed a successful ‘IRIS’ rehearsal earlier in the day; yet as VIP guests filtered into The Quay Club – swooping up cocktails that were as inviting as the day’s blissfully sunny skies – Ersin admitted to feeling (understandably) a little nervous: “I want people to find it spectacular,” he confides. “Usually, our production company, Marshmallow Laser Feast, designs for the stage. In this case, the commission was to create something for the auditorium that responds to the architecture of the Lyric Theatre.


‘The theatre is always the theatre. We have tweaked and played with the architecture – shrinking it and expanding it using laser lights. It’s abstract, ephemeral; there’s no clear narrative. People create that through their own response to it. We wanted to take people to a space that is changing and then leave them with that space – and hopefully breathless.”

It’s a hope that The Lowry’s Chief Executive Officer, Julia Fawcett OBE, shares: “Contemporary art, digital art… these can be a challenge. Our Digital Programme is about finding ways of opening up people, so that they bring no prejudgment; they haven’t already decided it’s not for them.

‘Our usual programme is planned two, even three years ahead, and artists approach us all the time with wacky ideas. We could never get our clocks in sync to exhibit them. That’s what our biennial commissioning festival Week53 is all about – stopping the clock and saying: ‘Our building is available’.”

‘IRIS’ is The Lowry’s Week53 commission for this intervening year. The Digital Programming Team were looking to work with artists who were at home with the challenge of working in the elliptic-shaped theatre; an empty space that isn’t truly empty. Previous collaborators – and internationally-renowned pioneers – Marshmallow Laser Feast were selected. Julia shares her delight at discovering one of the founders is from Salford, exclaiming: “They’re from around the world and around the corner!”

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‘IRIS’ exists in two free formats: as a ‘Black Box’ experience you can enjoy as a piece of digital art, or as a surprise piece of pre-theatre before selected shows.

“It’s dynamic – a completely different experience that changes whether you are in the circle or the stalls,” says Julia, who challenged Marshmallow Laser Feast to create a digital art piece that would sit comfortably before every kind of show, from comedy to opera to drama.

“As it’s free, people can come back again and again. What happens isn’t like anything else that you usually experience when you sit in a theatre. You are a participant as much as an observer. You’re inside something – the void of the building – encapsulated by the sound and music-scape.”

With our appetites well and truly whetted, we head into the Lyric Theatre itself for a short introductory speech by Julia. It is only four days since a terrorist atrocity took 22 lives and caused injuries to 119 others at the Manchester Arena, so it is with loving respect that Julia pays tribute to all those affected. From the initial feeling of helplessness, she says, came a resolve to: “Do what we do: to carry on delivering the programme and great art.” It echoes Ersin’s earlier comments that the show will give us breathing space, and that “they [the terrorists] can’t win.”


After this moment of reflection, ‘IRIS’ begins… The bowels of the Lyric Theatre are plunged into darkness and is punctuated by mechanical, industrial noises, which are interspersed by strains of classical music. With my heart pounding, I feel for my husband’s hand – uncertain of what to expect next. Overhead, robotically-controlled lasers now pierce red beams of light through the darkness – stretching long, searching fingers down from the ceiling to slowly probe the audience below.

The movie reel of my mind digs out ‘Blade Runner’ as a cultural reference – it feels dystopian… a disembodied presence extending tendrils of light to prod and provoke.. yet as the light columns begin to encircle us – caging us in – I desperately want to be one of the ‘chosen ones’ who are ‘touched’ by the criss-crossing lights that stain faces and hands red for a fleeting second. When I finally ‘catch’ one, it ribbons through my fingers – leaving a smile of pleasure on my face.

Pulsating… growing and shrinking… ‘IRIS’ now changes – the soundtrack becoming ethereal and yearning. We have entered a time of enlightenment, similar to Aldous Huxley’s ‘doors of perception’; there is a feeling of a new dawn of knowledge and connectivity. The lasers are a friend and an educator – showing their intelligence with increasingly intricate patterns that suspend, swoop and play.

Then – after six all too short minutes – it ends abruptly; the hypnotic trance is broken. Julia Fawcett’s ardent wish that ‘IRIS’ will leave you curious – and with a burning resolve to return – is fulfilled.

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Spilling back out into the still brilliant daylight, it’s now time to nurse a drink and muse over what we’ve experienced in ‘IRIS’, while the ‘Tim Peaks Diner’ experience takes residence at Pier Eight below us. Strains of overhead conversation echo Julia and Ersin’s promise that this ethereal being, ‘IRIS’, will be interpreted uniquely by all. No two opinions are the same, but there are surprised and curious grins of pleasure all around.
It’s the perfect precursor to The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess, who is joined by guests TEAR and a bevy of DJs for an uplifting mini-festival that feels communal and comforting after the week’s events.


Hi Resplendent in a gold glittery cardigan, which he later peels off to reveal a ‘A Different Day’ T-shirt, the indie legend serves up an acoustic set of the ‘songs we know, but done different’ – treating us to crowd-pleasers like ‘The Only One I Know’, ‘Just When You’re Thinkin’ Things Over’, ‘Tellin’ Stories’ and ‘North Country Boy’. It is hot on the heels of the launch of The Charlatans’ new album, ‘Different Days’. Touted as ‘the best Charlatans album in 20 years’, it features a plethora of special guests – including Smiths’ legend Johnny Marr, who plays on three tracks. After the ‘Tim Peaks Diner’ experience, Opening Night will be snapping it up!


Audiences can experience ‘IRIS’ before selected performances in the Lyric Theatre and on the following additional dates:

Saturday, 27 May – Sunday, 28 May: 11am to 4pm

Saturday, 10, 17 and 24 June: 10.30am to 11.30am

Saturday, 8 July: 10.30am to 11.30am

The artwork will last for approximately seven minutes and will be shown every 15 minutes.

Reviewed by Michelle Ewen