“What looks like a simple kitchen set contains more surprises and tricks than a Vegas magic show”: Actor Giles Cooper on Toast and the challenges of playing Nigel Slater
Toast is a stage adaption of the award-winning 2004 autobiography of British chef and food writer Nigel Slater.
Opening at London’s The Other Palace in April after a successful run at Edinburgh Fringe festival, writer Henry Filloux-Bennett and director Jonnie Riordan’s production adapts the emotive memoirs into a theatrical, immersive, gastronomic treat.
The Upcoming caught up with Giles Cooper, who plays the lead role of Nigel Slater, to find out how he prepared for the role and the challenges he faced along the way.
How did you feel when you were initially approached to take the lead role of Nigel Slater in the West-end stage adaption of his memoirs, Toast?
Surprised. An element of the audition process was a movement call where all the actors got to meet each other… and size up the competition. In my mind, I singled out the actors I thought were perfect to play Nigel. I quickly concluded that there was no way I would be picked. Fortunately, Jonnie, our director, had other ideas. Shows what I know about auditions.
How did you prepare for this particular role?
The stage play is based on Nigel’s bestselling memoir so reading that several times was an obvious starting point. Whilst my performance isn’t an impression I’ve found myself watching quite a lot of Nigel onscreen for mannerisms, speech patterns and traits. And, of course, I’ve attempted to take on a few of Nigel’s sweeter recipes to treat the cast and crew. This nearly backfired when Nigel unexpectedly turned up in a technical rehearsal the same day I’d brought in a Victoria Sandwich. Luckily the sponge was on my side that day. He approved. My Mum was so proud.
The theatre adaption immerses the audience through the sensory experience of food. Has this been a huge challenge in the performance?
I don’t want to give too much away as there are quite a few culinary surprises throughout the show but combining cookery, movement and acting has certainly been a new challenge for me over the last few weeks. Our food director James Thompson, who works closely with Nigel, taught me a new set of kitchen skills that I hope will impress any professional chefs who come to the show.
What is your favourite scene in this production?
Any scene where the cast can slip me a glass of water. I don’t leave the stage for the entire show. It’s thirsty work. Actually, my favourite scenes are when the entire cast are onstage. They are a crazily talented bunch and I think they would agree that we have the most fun in the show when we’re all together.
Working so closely with Nigel Slater himself, were you privy to any of his recipe secrets or indeed any of his cooking?
As I mentioned previously Nigel would regularly pop into rehearsals and, on occasion, bring us something he’d created for our tea break. It was always a special, completely delicious and somewhat surreal experience to eat something made by the man himself whilst standing in front of him. As for his recipe secrets… I’m afraid I’m sworn to secrecy. Sorry.
The set design by Libby Watson is an integral part of the piece; do you think it helps create a sense of nostalgia for the audience?
Libby has created a terrific set that not only evokes a sense of nostalgia but also adapts seamlessly to Nigel’s tale and the dozens of different scenes needed to tell his story. What looks like a simple kitchen set upon arrival contains more surprises and tricks than a Vegas magic show at times.
Do you think the director Jonnie Riordon successfully enables the cast to capture the emotive intricacies that Nigel Slater explores in his book?
Yes. Definitely. Jonnie’s background as a performer, director and choreographer with Frantic Assembly means he has brought a gloriously original and inventive approach to Nigel’s story. There are a few dark corners of Nigel’s past that are recreated onstage and the detailed work of Jonnie, the creative team and cast certainly help me reach an emotional pitch that I hope enhances my performance.
Nigel describes himself as a “cook that writes”. How would you describe yourself?
An actor whose hands constantly smell of garlic these days.
You have worked as an actor in both theatre and television. Which has been the most rewarding to date?
I know it’s a cliche answer but there really is nothing that compares to live performance. The immediacy of the actor and audience’s interaction is, at times, electric. Film obviously has its rewards though, especially when you’ve used a different set of acting skills for a screen performance. Watching a performance back, often months later, can be surprising and, when it works, hugely rewarding.
Acting in a biographical capacity must be extremely fascinating but equally as challenging; is it a path you would love to expand on in any future roles?
Absolutely. It’s such an exciting challenge. Last year I played a former Tory whip in James Graham’s This House. Whenever you play a biographical role you normally have a wealth of information and material available to you for research. Then you get to decide what to use in performance and what to discard. It is indeed a fascinating process, especially when you’re interacting with other real-life characters. The main difference between my role in This House and Toast, though, is that Nigel is very much involved and generously answers any and all questions I have. Sadly the whip wasn’t quite so forthcoming so I worked with the director and writer to build a character that made sense of their part in the story.
Image: Simon Annand
Toast is at The Other Palace from 10th April until 3rd August 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.