This Friday (8th September), Giles Cooper opens in his next production, when he plays Herbert Pocket at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre in the Charles Dickens adaptation Great Expectations, with the show running until 7th October and directed by Pooja Ghai. Having starred as Nigel Slater in Toast at The Other Palace and on the UK Tour, Giles reprised his role for an online production of the show during the pandemic in 2020, and he returned to live stage performance last year as Brian in the European premiere of Steve at Seven Dials Playhouse. Further productions for Giles have included touring as Fred Silvester in This House, and he performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in The Duchess of Malfi, The Knight of the Burning Pestle and Henry V. Recently, we caught up with Giles about opening in Great Expectations at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, returning to the role of Herbert Pocket in the show and his time portraying Nigel Slater in Toast.
Until 7th October, you will be performing at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations, what are you looking forward to for performing in the production?
I’m looking forward to performing in the round at the Exchange. It’s arguably one of the greatest theatres in the world so it’s a real honour being invited here. Also, bringing this banger of a classic to the stage, in a completely new setting, is going to be so exciting. It’s Expectations as you’ve never seen it before.
We understand you have played Herbert previously, what is the character like to play and how does it feel to be returning to the role?
It’s a very rare opportunity to play the same character especially after a gap of nearly 12 years so obviously I jumped at the chance when it was offered to me. He’s such a joyful character. Relentlessly upbeat and optimistic. I love him. He is one of the few characters in the Dickens canon that is genuinely happy and doesn’t have some awful agenda.
How is it being part of a Charles Dickens-adapted play and why do you think Great Expectations has stayed popular over the years?
For many, it’s Dickens’ greatest work. Even better, controversially, than A Christmas Carol. I think it’s the rich characters woven into the story that have kept it in people’s minds over the years. I mean, come on… Miss Havisham has to be one of the all-time great literary characters, no?! The stream of rich and varied adaptions on TV, film and stage has also kept the tale popular.
What is it like working alongside the rest of the cast and being directed by Pooja Ghai?
Pooja and I first met when we were both acting in the first version of Tanika’s (Gupta) adaptation of the book. We got on instantly and have remained in touch ever since. I’m thrilled for all the success she has had since becoming a director and was honoured when she invited me back for this new production. She has assembled an outstanding cast who I am humbled to be working alongside at the Exchange.
Who do you think will enjoy watching Great Expectations at Royal Exchange Theatre and why would you recommend booking tickets?
Whether you know the story or not, I think this adaptation will definitely appeal to all. It’s a huge, barnstormer of a tale set in, unlike the book, the British Raj in the run up to the partition of Bengal, where the action is now set. Tanika Gupta had a stroke of a genius by transposing the Dickens classic into the heart of such an important moment in Indian and British history.
You played Brian in the European premiere of Steve at Seven Dials Playhouse last year, how was your time in the show?
This was my first stage play after the pandemic so it was an emotional and joyful return after years of doubt and worry about our industry. We were also the opening show of the Seven Dials Playhouse, which was a great honour. We were a tight company and enjoyed ourselves immensely. I’m still in almost daily contact with a few of the cast, which is unusual and special.
What are some of your favourite highlights from starring as Nigel Slater in Toast?
I think cooking a dish from scratch on stage every performance was definitely my favourite moment in the show. On paper it shouldn’t have worked. It sounded boring and was right at the end when you’d expect the audience were itching to go home. But as soon as I added the butter and garlic to the pan and the smell filled the auditorium, it was a mesmeric theatrical moment to be a part of. I always looked forward to it. Stage management and a few cast members were always in the wings to eat the dish once it was taken off stage.
How was it getting into character and preparing to take on the role of Nigel?
Nigel himself was very generous with his time and came to support us in rehearsals. Simply having him there to talk to and observe was a gift. Whilst I was playing him a few years younger than he is now, I was able to incorporate a few small mannerisms that he carries to this day. I don’t think he minded… I hope not at least.
What was it like seeing the audience response to the play and how was it reprising your role for the online production in 2020?
We toured the show across the UK and audiences were wonderful. Nigel’s story, beautifully directed by Jonnie Riordan, evoked memories of everyone’s childhood through the countless foods that kept cropping up in the show. Being invited to revisit the role in lockdown was a welcome challenge. The challenge being to create a homemade recording studio in my wardrobe using duvets and blankets and record dialogue to a professional quality.
How did you find the experience touring as Fred Silvester in This House?
I was working on another play at the National Theatre when the original production of This House opened there and I vividly remember its impact. It was a huge hit for the writer James Graham (the first of many) and when I was invited to take on the role of Fred in the same production, touring nationally, it was a no-brainer. Whilst audiences from around the country responded differently to the show’s politics, depending on what constituency we were in, it was still very popular. I’d love to do that show again.
Having previously performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in The Duchess of Malfi, The Knight of the Burning Pestle and Henry V, what is the venue like to perform in and what were the shows like to do?
Both the outdoor Globe and indoor Wanamaker are literally theatrical time machines. It’s surreal and utterly thrilling performing on a stage almost exactly as actors would’ve done hundreds of years ago. Both of those theatres are surprisingly flexible, keeping classical work fresh and engaging for modern audiences. The plays I performed were certainly more traditional, especially Malfi, which was the opening show of the Wanamaker.
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you get into it?
I started performing at my local village primary school (funnily enough with Gabriel Vick, who is currently starring in Mrs Doubtfire). From there it was school plays and eventually drama school. I fell in love with creating imaginary worlds and characters and telling stories. I didn’t want to do anything else in my life so I’m honestly grateful every day that this is still my job.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch and which would you like to see that you haven’t done so as yet?
Anything by Arthur Miller, Tom Stoppard, James Graham and Tanika Gupta. There are definitely a few Shakespeare plays I’ve yet to watch. I won’t say which.
What do you enjoy most about performing in theatre and how do you like to spend your free time?
The live interaction with an audience. No matter how big or small. Sometimes it doesn’t work but when it does it’s an unmatchable sensation.
I love to potter around the kitchen and see friends in my spare time. I’ve also gotten into more endurance sports in my old age so most free time is now spent training for crazy things like Ironman.
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