TBB Talks To … Actor Toheeb Jimoh About Almeida Theatre production ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’

Earlier this year one of the UK’s rising stars Toheeb Jimoh played Anthony Walker in BBC’s Anthony.

This winter, Jimoh will appear in the Almeida Theatre production Nine Lessons and Carols. Devised by Rebecca Frecknall and Chris Bush and the company of six performers, this play is about connection and isolation, about lighting a candle to see us through the longest night and about what we hold on to when we cannot hold each other.

We spoke to Jimoh to find out more about playing Anthony, his return to the theatre, and how it feels to be a young black actor working in the industry today …

Please introduce yourself

My Name is Toheeb Jimoh and I’m an Actor.

What word or sentence best describes your life right now?

I can’t decide between two – if I had to go for a word that describes my life right now I’d have to go for – Blessed. I’ve been lucky with the opportunities I’ve been given, I’ve also been challenged and grown so much. To attribute this to anything but the prayers of my parents would be crazy. Blessed is the word I would go with. If I had to choose a phrase I’d go with: “It is what it is” (ideally in a Nigerian accent). That phrase is probably the one I use the most when things don’t go my way and has been my saving grace in what’s probably been the strangest year of my life.

This has been a big year for you – starring in Anthony, being nominated for an I Talk Telly Best Breakthrough Award … When you were invited to audition for Anthony, did you feel strongly that this was a part you wanted to play?

Of course! I remember finishing the script and saying out loud that I had to do this job. The script was so beautifully written and the story was one that hit close to home. It annoyed me that I wasn’t aware of Anthony’s story before this, so being a part of sharing his story with a wider audience was amazing. I feel really blessed that I got to tell it.

Toheeb Jimoh as Anthony Walker in ‘Anthony‘ | Anthony Walker

Anthony imagines how the life of Anthony Walker, a black 18-year-old murdered by two white men in an unprovoked racist attack in Liverpool park in 2005, might have turned out. Did you feel any pressure or responsibility portraying Anthony and his story?

I did. My main thought was just to do the story justice. I knew pretty early on how involved Gee Walker (Anthony’s mum) was in the film and more than anything I wanted to make her proud. I also knew how important this story would be to the black community and to Liverpudlians – we all felt massively responsible for handling it sensitively, with care, and as truthfully as possible.

With shows like I May Destroy You and Small Axe, this has been a particularly great year for TV that showcases black actors, writers, and directors. Going forward in your career, are there any particular roles you dream of performing?

I have a range of different dream jobs. I’ve always wanted to play Hamlet on stage or a Marvel superhero. I’ve also just wanted to play a Nigerian character and luckily I’ve had the chance to do that twice now. I’m also just happy to read new scripts and tell new stories as well as retelling older ones.

Let’s talk about your upcoming performance in the Almeida Theatre’s Nine Lessons and Carols. The title refers to the church service traditionally held around Christmas Eve – does this have any relevance to the plot of the show?

The idea of Carols and communities was part of the provocation that we started with but we weren’t wedded to it. The Nine Lessons service led us to the question – Have we learnt any lessons this year and if so what were they? The show is devised loosely around the themes of isolation and connection and we have a series of short scenes, monologues, and songs.

)(l-r) Toheeb Jimoh, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Elliot Levey, Luke Thallon, and Katie Brayben in Nine Lessons and Carols. Photograph: Helen Murray

Nine Lessons and Carols is a devised show – a process that I assume was very different to how you worked on Anthony. How did you find devising? Is this something you’ve done before?

I’ve never devised a theatre show before. The process was very different. To begin with, we had no script when we started. We just had to trust ourselves, Chris Bush our writer, and Rebecca Frecknall our director. We would have conversations about this year and what resonated most with us and then isolate some themes which would then be written into scenes. It was really empowering to have a direct impact on what we would be performing as most of the source material came from the experiences of the company this year.

Have rehearsals been affected at all by lockdown restrictions?

We didn’t have any Zoom rehearsals (Thank God) but we did have to maintain a strict 2-metre policy that we keep up to this day. We can’t touch anything that somebody else has touched without wiping it down first. We have to take our temperature as soon as we walk into the building and log them. Thankfully we didn’t have to wear masks the entire time but as soon as we leave the rehearsal room to go anywhere else in the building we have to. Claire Sibley our Stage Manager has kept us all in check – she only has to look in my direction for me to go reaching for my mask. Luckily we’ve all managed to stay safe.

In previous interviews, you’ve talked about how Anthony reaffirmed your belief in the power of art. In the future, what kind of narratives would you like to see promoted in art?

Going forward I’d like to tell stories that show black people just being people – living their lives, falling in love, being sci-fi characters, and all sorts. There’s such a backlog of stories that capture the black British experience in the past and thank God those shows are finally being made, like Small Axe for instance, but as I journey forward in my career I wouldn’t want to be limited to telling only those stories. I would hope that production companies and streaming platforms would greenlight shows that just happen to have plenty of black characters that aren’t necessarily about their race, as well as racially charged stories.

Have you got any other upcoming projects you want to tell us about?

As we finish the run of 9 Lessons and Carol’s I’ll be moving into Season 2 of Ted Lasso (A new show for Apple TV about a premier league football team and their new American coach) I’m playing Sam Obisanya a Nigerian footballer! I’ll then go off to finish shooting Season 1 of The Power (An adaptation of Naiomi Alderman’s book of the same name) It’s a sci-fi story in which women suddenly develop the ability to release electrical jolts from their fingers leading them to become the dominant gender. I’m playing Tunde a Nigerian journalist who aims to chronicle this new phenomenon. I’ll also be appearing in Wes Anderson’s latest film The French Dispatch which is currently delayed but will be airing soon!

Getting To Know You

  • A book you have to have in your collection –  A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Read this book, it will change your life)
  • A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to dateGood kid m.A.A.d city – Kendrick Lamar (I’ll never forgive the Grammy’s)
  • A film/TVshow that you will watch whenever it’s on repeatedlyFresh Prince of Bel-Air or My Wife and Kids
  • The first play you saw and what it meant to you / and or reminds you why you’re in this business – I think the first play I saw was Blood Brothers at the West End. We went on a school trip when I was like 13/14. We had studied it in school and I still remember the gunshot going off at the end. I was still years away from figuring out I wanted to be an actor at that point but I was still moved by it.
  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week: Mad: My card got declined in Greggs this week. Sad: People on social media can be horrible sometimes. Glad: My family and I are all safe and happy at the moment and that’s all I can really ask for.

Nine Lessons and Carols will be performed at the Almeida Theatre from 3rd December – 9th January. Find out more here.

Anthony is available to watch via BBC iPlayer.


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