ACTOR Blair Plant is touring for the first time in 20 years in Nigel Slater’s Toast. By a happy coincidence, the show brings him back to a theatre he knows very well, York Theatre Royal, from tomorrow.
He first worked on the stage crew 34 years ago while studying at York St John College (as the university was called then).
“I’ve done regional theatre but only in one specific theatre, not touring,” says Blair. “Over the last six or seven years I’ve done a lot of work in the West End.
“Now I’ve changed agents for the first time in 15 years and my new agent said I’ve got to put myself about a bit more and perhaps take less comfortable jobs than the West End work I’ve been doing. Basically, to get out and get back on the road and be seen by more people.”
Toast has been adapted for the stage from food writer Nigel Slater’s book recounting his childhood and cooking ambitions. Blair knew “nothing at all” about the show and Slater’s life before the job came along, although they do have one thing in common: both come from Wolverhampton.
He plays Nigel Slater’s father, so when Slater watches the play, that understandably adds to Blair’s nervousness. “He had a complicated relationship with his father,” he says. “His father makes the children laugh and is a nice dad sometimes but then just flips and switches. You never know when that’s going to happen. He’s not a violent man but is unpredictable, short tempered”
Slater attended rehearsals. “He’s lovely. He baked a cake and brought it in for us,” recalls Blair.
Talking of things to eat, the actor is required to demonstrate how to eat a Walnut Whip at every performance, but don’t ask why! When you see the play, you will understand.
After eating so many in rehearsal, Blair “went off” Walnut Whips. A similar thing happened during his student days in York when he was an ice cream seller: he swiftly stopped wanting to eat ice cream.
The York St John course that young Blair took was billed as “dance, drama, movement, film and television”. His ambition was to act, but his parents, who were funding him through university, preferred him to take an academic degree.
However, he saw working on the Theatre Royal stage crew during his student days as a means of gaining entry into theatre.
He began as a follow-spot operator and LX technician before joining the stage crew. His break came when the touring company run by actors Kate O’Mara and Peter Woodward opened a show in York and the Theatre Royal stage crew built the set.
“I persuaded them to take me on tour with them as their touring carpenter. I did that for 13 weeks and touring all over the country was a wonderful experience,” he says.
He was back at York when the same company asked if he would like to return as an acting assistant stage manager, an opportunity that enabled him to gain the all-important Equity union card. He toured with the company for four years, each time bringing a production to York, where he lived for 15 years after falling in love with the city during his student days.
He can also claim some responsibility for Damian Cruden becoming artistic director at York Theatre Royal. Blair had been directed by the Scotsman in John Godber’s Bouncers at Hull Truck Theatre and suggested him to theatre bosses. The rest, as they say, is history. Damian was artistic director for 22 years until he left earlier this year.
Blair worked with him several more times, including in The Railway Children at both Waterloo and King’s Cross venues over a four-year period. “Damian sent me the script before it went on at the Railway Museum in York. I’m terrible at lifting a story off the page and didn’t get it at all and said it wasn’t for me. I didn’t realise how immense the show was going to be,” he recalls.
When the award-winning production, which featured a real steam train, transferred to London, Blair wanted to be part of it. He spent four years playing first the dissident Russian intellectual, Mr Szczepansky, then the Father in York playwright Mike Kenny’s adaptation of E. Nesbit’s book. “I really, really loved it. It was a really lovely job,” says Blair.
He names his most challenging role at York – and of his career – as Lenny in Alan Bleasdale’s comedy Having A Ball, where he had to strip on stage and perform a six-minute monologue totally naked. “That was difficult to do in the rehearsal room, but by the time we got on stage, I’d got over being naked and so had the other actors. It was the audience who had to get over it.”
The most fun he has had was in Bouncers. “The buzz from that gig – you couldn’t sleep until three in the morning because as an actor you are so high and very fit,” he says.
Now Blair is popping up in Toast on his latest return to York.
Nigel Slater’s Toast, York Theatre Royal, November 19 to 23, 7.30pm, plus 2pm, Thursday, and 2.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
By Raymond Crisp