Interview: Lois Chimimba on playing Aly in wonder.land

Lois Chimimba is enjoying her new role. Picture:  Debra Hurford Brown

Lois Chimimba is enjoying her new role. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

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LOIS Chimimba is living the fantasy on the London stage, but still yearns to find a Scottish rabbit hole

Lois Chimimba is dragging a suitcase behind her as she greets me. The Glaswegian actor is just back from a holiday to Berlin, which proved somewhat eye-opening. “It’s so liberal in terms of who you meet and the things they get up to,” she marvels. “One club we arrived at, people were completely naked but nobody gave them a second glance. Everyone is so trendy, they all wear cool clothes. Nobody’s too glam, they’re all so interesting and arty. It was great fun.”

Lois Chimimba' on stage as Aly. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

Lois Chimimba' on stage as Aly. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

This enthusiastic account feels apposite because we’re at the National Theatre on London’s South Bank to talk about the 24-year-old’s starring role in wonder.land, Damon Albarn’s digital age musical inspired by Lewis Carroll’s literary classic Alice In Wonderland.

Chatty and articulate, Chimimba is no ingénue, with a smattering of stage and television credits to her name since graduating from drama school two years ago. In 2014, she portrayed a sexually emboldened, murderous Tahitian in the play Pitcairn by Richard Bean, set around the aftermath of the mutiny on the Bounty. Yet there remains a strikingly youthful and wide-eyed quality to her. She got so wound up by her first screen appearance as a patient who suffers a cardiac arrest on Holby City, it sent her personal pulse reader “shooting up 20 times, I was so scared!”

More recently, she played Mab, the bold, devious, if none too bright, lead in Radges, BBC3’s sitcom pilot set in a Scottish behavioural therapy unit for troubled teens.

In wonder.land, which previewed at the Manchester International Festival in July, she’s playing someone half her age – 12-year-old Aly, who flees unhappiness at home and bullying at school by escaping online as her avatar, Alice.

Opening at the National Theatre in London next month, the musical is directed by the theatre’s artistic director Rufus Norris, with lyrics by playwright and screenwriter Moira Buffini. Running until spring before transferring to Paris, it’s Blur and Gorillaz singer Albarn’s third stage production after Monkey: Journey To The West and the opera Dr Dee, and re-imagines children’s smartphones as Carroll’s rabbit hole.

Chimimba enjoyed the Alice books and their film adaptations as a youngster and “really loved the Jabberwocky poem, all that nonsense kind of stuff”. Yet at the initial dress run, when Aly creates her avatar and is transported into the virtual world of the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter and March Hare, her phone’s screen emblazoned across the stage behind her, “my face actually lit up because I couldn’t believe how amazing it all looked!”

Contrasting with Aly’s drab home life is a virtual world of kaleidoscopic colour, where the Dodo, Humpty Dumpty, the Mock Turtle and the rest are all misfits masquerading as someone else, and her cold headmistress becomes the cruel Queen of Hearts. “The projections are gorgeous, there’s a ten foot mouse and a lizard with sequins all over his body, sparkling in the light. It took my breath away. I love it and every night it feels the same way it did in the beginning,” says Chimimba.

On the Radges set, she didn’t tell anyone that she’d been cast in wonder.land, because “at the beginning, it almost didn’t feel like it was real. They offered me the part and over Christmas I kept thinking, ‘I’ve not signed anything. Can they take it away from me?’

“Even in the workshops, when so many things were constantly changing, I wanted to hold it close to my chest because I only wanted people to see it when it was ready. And I was just so excited about being at the National that I didn’t want to jinx it.”

Returning to rehearsals this month, she says she’s “in awe” of Albarn. As a teenager, she “really, really loved Gorillaz” and remembers hearing Blur classics like Parklife and Country House on Top Of The Pops. “I was lucky enough to go to his recording studio and there was pretty much every instrument under the sun in that room,” she says. “To help with the pre-orchestrations for the band, I had to sing as a guide and it was amazing to see him in amongst everything. His mind works so differently from mine – what he can see in the music.”

Albarn and Buffini have been near constant presences since those initial workshops in December, and they, like director Norris, have teenage children. Perhaps that is what made them unusually open to the young cast’s input: “If there were phrases or words that we thought, ‘Young people don’t talk like that,’ they really took on board what we said.”

Early stagings of the musical for schools afforded crucial feedback as well. But they were “quite scary” she says, laughing, because although children tell you what’s believable, “they’re also happy to say which bits are boring”. Happily for Chimimba, who taught at the Stagecoach Theatre Arts School in Newton Mearns until earlier this year, “the way girls talk, especially the teenage ones, helped me a lot with relating to Aly. I spoke to a few of them about their phones and the internet. They were really open. None of them thought it was a big deal, they didn’t know why their parents were bothered. Even as I was speaking to them, half of them were on their phones.”

Having effectively grown up with the internet, Chimimba was afforded social media advice as part of her drama training, and warned that while it’s a great marketing tool, theatre is a close-knit world and you should be careful when tweeting critically. Even so, she’s conscious of a generation gulf between her and today’s youngsters.

Children “are so much more astute with social media” she says. “Even eight and nine-year-olds at the stage school have Instagram, Twitter, Facebook; they all know how to do the perfect selfies and put filters on. I was never as grown up in terms of the identity I was putting out. The way the photos are… posed, how the girls manage to make their make-up amazing and their lips a certain way. They all seemed a lot more mature than I was at their age.”

Wonder.land strives to offer a balanced view of the World Wide Web. Aly’s father has an online gambling addiction and her parents have split up. But Aly is lonely having moved to a new school. “If it wasn’t for this virtual game, she wouldn’t have anybody to open up to and find solace with. You can speak to people from all over the world, be whoever you want to be and find out who you really are on the net,” Chimimba reflects.

Shy, mixed-race Aly creates an avatar that is a classic incarnation of Carroll’s Alice: long, straight blonde hair and blue eyes. It’s this desire to fit in that chimes with the actor, who recalls “being younger and wishing my hair was maybe a bit straighter, that it could grow a bit longer like all my friends’ did. But then thoughts of being a bit slimmer, having longer hair or thicker eyebrows – sadly, I think that resonates with all girls and women”.

A self-confessed “show-off” since childhood, Chimimba was born in Glasgow to a Scottish mother and Malawian father who met as engineering students. “He was the only black man in the class and she was one of two women.”

Their daughter lived in Africa till she was two-and-a-half, before returning to Scotland to be brought up in Stepps. She ditched her adolescent dream of becoming a pop star to focus on acting, attending Glasgow’s Lynne Miller Academy and acquiring an HND in acting and performance at the city’s nautical college, before moving to London to study at Mountview Academy, whose alumni include Ken Stott, Connie Fisher, Douglas Henshall and Eddie Marsan.

Chimimba hasn’t been back to Malawi and its “beautiful” landscapes and wildlife since she was 14 and hopes to do so in the near future. But she recalls being “shocked” by the divide between rich and poor, with relatively affluent households surrounded by “eight foot walls and security guards all the time”.

Despite there being “only a handful of different ethnicities” where she grew up and Glasgow’s overwhelming whiteness, she wasn’t conscious of being in any way different until she moved to London’s much larger melting pot. “I would meet black people who would expect me to know more about African culture. At first it felt too big and scary and I did quite miss home.”

And then there was the communication problem, she jokes – no-one “expected me to talk like a Glaswegian fishwife. When I first came down, quite a lot of people didn’t understand what I was saying and I had to be careful about slowing down”.

Chimimba believes diversity in theatre is developing, “but it’s moving really, really slowly. Even at drama school, in a class of 30 you’d have maybe three people from an ethnic minority and everyone else was white. But that’s only reflecting the roles that are out there. They’re only wanting to take on people they know are going to get work.”

Venturing that her “year-round tan” helped her to get her break in Pitcairn, Chimimba had feared that her upbringing might not be such an asset in the eyes of casting directors: “If they want someone Scottish, maybe they don’t picture someone like me”. She is eager to work closer to home. “I just think there’s something special about performing in your own accent, in your own town; you know it so much better and can bring a different quality to it,” she says, adding that one of her dream roles would be Lady Macbeth, “because everyone’s just so English in that”.

For the present, Chimimba just hopes that Radges will be commissioned for a full series because the voluble, self-centred and confident Mab is “really good fun” to play – “she can get away with so much more than I ever could.”

After shooting a small role in another BBC3 sitcom filmed in Scotland, Fried, she says that comedy is a genre she wants to do more of, even if a paucity of female-led shows has inspired her and her friend and fellow actor, Saffron Hocking, to try writing a script about young women in London. “All our female friends are quite funny, a bit silly and up for nonsense,” she says. “America has Girls and I’d love to write something like that.”

She smirks as she admits that her favourite song of Aly’s, That’s Crap, is a dingdong number reminiscent of how she and her own mother would argue when she was a teenager, about “wanting to stay out later than she thought I should. Or wearing too short a skirt. But I never got a particularly hard time from her.”

Tearing up at seeing her daughter’s fake prosthetic chest being ripped open on Holby as she went into cardiac arrest, Chimimba’s mother had earlier counselled her on how tough acting was going to be, supporting her through all the sobbing calls home as she wailed, “I don’t want to be a waitress, I want to be an actress!”

Today, “pretty much anything that I’m going to be in, the whole street will know. My gran will go to the bowling club, so they’ll all know. And my cousins Facebook it everywhere!”

Chimimba intends to screen test in the United States one day and has had several meetings with the National Theatre of Scotland. And 2015 already feels like a tipping point for her career.

“It’s amazing to think that I’ll be on at the National – that still doesn’t feel quite real,” she says. “I’m a big believer in positive thinking and I feel so much more secure now, like I can take a few more risks in going travelling and not worry about the audition of a lifetime passing me by. But acting has been my big focus from a young age and it probably always will be.”

• Preview performances for wonder.land at the National Theatre begin on 23 November

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