Earlier this year, Ibinabo Jack starred as lead character Big Cook Jen in the CBeebies revival of Big Cook, Little Cook alongside Courtney Bowman as Little Cook. Since 2018, Ibinabo has played DC Jac Williams in ITV crime drama Vera for her first regular screen role, with Brenda Blethyn playing Vera, and her previous screen projects have included Big Fat Like for CBBC and Doctors as Theresa Sutton. As a stage actor, Ibinabo was performing in The High Table at the Bush Theatre before the pandemic closed the production ahead of their run at Birmingham Rep, and she has appeared as Immaculée in Our Lady of Kibeho at Royal & Derngate Theatre. Ibinabo was in the original West End cast of Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre as Lorrell Robinson, which saw her win Best Supporting Actress in a New Production of a Musical at the Broadway World Awards, and she covered the role of Nicki Marron in The Bodyguard at the Dominion Theatre, and made her West End debut in Legally Blonde as Pilar. We chatted to Ibinabo about filming as Big Cook Jen in the revival of Big Cook, Little Cook, playing DC Jac Williams in Vera and performing in The High Table at the Bush Theatre before the pandemic.
You play Big Cook Jen in the new revival series of Big Cook, Little Cook on CBeebies, what is the show like to film and what do you enjoy most about working on the series?
Playing Jen in the CBeebies revival of Big Cook, Little Cook was an honour! It was loads of fun to film but one of the most physically and mentally demanding projects I’ve ever worked on! I mostly enjoyed filming the physical comedy and slapstick scenes. There’s so much that goes into making television for children and I take my hat off to the people who do it all year round because it’s very important work.
What is Big Cook Jen like to play and how is it working with Little Cook Small actor Courtney Bowman?
Big Cook Jen is really high energy and it was difficult at times to maintain what was required to embody the character for eight hours a day in the middle of winter with no natural light but Courtney Bowman is an absolute legend and very talented. It was a joy to work with her – we belly laughed every day and supported each other emotionally.
Was there anything that drew you to the series and how is it being part of the revival of a popular TV show?
I have ten ‘sibkids’ and the eldest (who’s 21 now!) used to watch the original series in the early 2000s. It was important for me to be a positive Black female presence on children’s TV because I didn’t have that when I was little. I love cooking, singing, dancing and joking around so this series just made sense. I used to pretend to present cooking shows when I was a kid, making beans on toast and taking the ‘viewers’ through the process, step by step. I’m the third of six children and I was always finding ways to entertain my siblings. I love making people laugh.
Can you tell us about your character DC Jacqueline ‘Jac’ Williams in Vera and what’s it like having her as your first regular role on screen?
DC Jac Williams will always hold a special place in my heart because she was the first character that I ever portrayed on screen. Jac and I share ideals with regard to ethics, values and morals and we have similar senses of humour. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work on such a great show with Brenda Blethyn, who is one of my favourite actors of all time.
What’s it like returning to film each series and how has it been developing the character over the years?
Vera is something to look forward to each year. Every episode has different writers, directors and guest actors so it’s like working on a feature film franchise and revisiting the characters after being away on other projects. I’ve really relished fleshing out my character and finessing my craft over the years.
What are some of your stand-out highlights from being in the cast of Vera and playing DC Jac Williams so far?
One of my stand-out moments whilst filming Vera was performing a stunt in Series 9 Episode 3 – Cuckoo. I had to get kicked in the face in the back of a police squad car. I loved doing stage combat at drama school so this was right up my street. Another stand-out was filming Series 11 Episode 2 – Recovery, which featured a female writer, director and victim, which was a first during my time on the show.
How did you find the experience filming for Big Fat Like?
Big Fat Like was so much fun to work on! I already knew the other actors and writers so the chemistry was easy, we played well together. They’re a ridiculously talented bunch and the show is brilliantly executed! #BringBackBigFatLike
What was it like joining the cast of Doctors in 2019 and what was Theresa Sutton like to play?
I wrote in my journal in 2018 that I wanted a semi-regular role in Doctors, so I was buzzing when I manifested the role of Theresa Sutton for six really special episodes in 2019. I learned a lot about working on a soap opera and I met some lifelong friends. It’s my goal to appear in all of the English soaps. I’ve already done Doctors and Hollyoaks. Next I’d love to do guest parts on Corrie, EastEnders and Emmerdale. I love a soap!
Before the pandemic, you’d been performing in The High Table at the Bush Theatre, can you tell us about this?
The High Table was supposed to play for one more week at the Bush Theatre then three weeks at Birmingham Rep. It was a shame not to complete the run but I won’t lie about being grateful for the rest. I hope that the play has a life in the future – it’s an important story that hasn’t been explored enough.
How was it playing Immaculée in Our Lady of Kibeho at the Royal & Derngate Theatre?
I originally auditioned for the role of Marie-Clare but was eventually offered the role of Immaculée, who wasn’t featured in the original draft of the script. I wasn’t aware of the story so it was great to study the era and themes. The story is incredible and I am humbled to have been trusted to share it.
You were in the original West End cast of Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre as Lorrell Robinson, do you have any favourite memories from your time in the musical and how was it recording the original London cast album?
Playing Lorrell Robinson in Dreamgirls was a dream come true! I’d wanted to play the role since 2004 when a friend who’d covered Lorrell on Broadway said that I’d be perfect for the part. I bought the original Broadway cast recording and vocal score and I would sing Ain’t No Party over and over. My Dreamgirls experience was bittersweet because I was struggling with my mental health and suffered a nervous breakdown during the run of the show, forcing me to leave prematurely. But one of my favourite memories was the sitzprobe – it’s my favourite part of musical theatre rehearsals and having the cast recording is a beautiful souvenir that I will cherish forever. I also won the Broadway World Award for Best Supporting Actress in a New Production of a Musical, which was an incredible and unexpected compliment.
What was it like being in the cast of The Bodyguard at the Dominion Theatre and how was it covering the role of Nicki Marron?
I LOVE Whitney Houston – she’s the reason I started singing. But during my time on The Bodyguard I was struggling with anxiety and depression. Rehearsals and performances were extremely challenging at times and I didn’t feel supported. I went on for Nicki Marron a few times but I was so anxious that I can hardly remember anything about those shows. There were some really fun times with a few of the cast and crew, both on and off stage but my experiences on The Bodyguard and Dreamgirls encouraged me to focus on my mental well-being for the first time and I am so grateful that I now have the support that I need.
You made your West End debut in Legally Blonde as Pilar, what do you remember most from performing in the show and playing the character?
Playing Pilar in Legally Blonde was the first time that I’d performed on a West End stage. I’d just graduated from Mountview with a 1st and I was on top of the world! I mostly remember the press night performance – it was electric – the entire company were so tight and secure that we were able to have fun and show off what we’d been working on. Pilar was my Sasha Fierce – an icon!
Where does your love of performing come from and how did you start?
My parents were both medical professionals and I was encouraged to either follow in their footsteps or become a teacher or lawyer. I fell in love with performing after watching Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson music videos on TV. When I was seven, I used to write radio plays and perform with my big brother on his ‘radio show’ on his tape recorder. My favourite film was West Side Story and I wanted to sing, dance and act on screen even though I didn’t have any access to performance clubs or classes. I was also painfully shy and would never want people looking at me whilst I sang. I used to sing with my coat over my head until I entered the talent contest singing Killing Me Softly by The Fugees when I was 14 and won! After that, I did GCSEs in Drama and Music and an A-Level in Performing Arts before being ‘discovered’ by Pippa Ailion at an open call in Manchester for RENT. I reached the final stages but ultimately didn’t win a part but Pippa kept me on her radar and cast me as Nala in The Legend of the Lion King at Disneyland Paris, which was my professional debut! After that, I went to Mountview and the rest, as they say, is history.
What are some of your favourite films, TV and theatre shows to watch and how do you like to spend your time away from your career?
I watch A LOT of TV! I especially love game shows like Countdown, Lingo and The Chase and action series like The Boys, See, Stranger Things and The Umbrella Academy. I also love documentaries and rewatching 90s sitcoms as well as films of EVERY genre. I don’t watch as much theatre as I’d like to but live theatre is like therapy for me; a time to be mindful and immersed in a new world. In my downtime, I take solo cinema trips, I read and I listen to music. I’m also learning BSL, French and the ukulele.
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