Twist Again  

Chinonyerem Odimba, 43, is an award-winning playwright best known for Amongst the Reds (Clean Break, Edinburgh Fringe and Yard Theatre London. 2016) A Blues for Nia (Eclipse Theatre/BBC), The Birdwoman of Lewisham (Arcola 2015) and Joanne (Clean Break. Soho Theatre, 2015). Her most recent success is Twist, a radical reimagining of Oliver Twist for the 21st century, commissioned by Theatre Centre. Susan Elkin talks to her.

Chino – as she is usually known –  arrived in London from Nigeria with her family when she was a child. “I grew up in London but have lived near Bristol for many years so I still sound like a Londoner to Bristolians” she jokes. More seriously, she adds that having undergone several major relocations she doesn’t feel especially bonded to places, has had quite a nomadic life, and can understand displacement although she was lucky and had a strong supportive family structure. And that brings us neatly to her latest play Twist, which is about a refugee from Syria who arrives alone illegally in London and gets into bad company – just as Dickens’s Oliver Twist did.

The play is a five hander which relies heavily on physicality and ensemble work. “The idea of adapting Oliver Twist came from Natalie Wilson, artistic director of Theatre Centre. She was very clear that she wanted a refugee story and there was a great deal of discussion and negotiation. We used a dramaturg too. So it was very collaborative. That’s all fine until the day comes when you realise that you’re the commissioned playwright and you’ve actually got to go away and write it on your own” says Chino, half joking, half rueful.

“I think we found parallels which have never been explored before and we’re dealing with some very difficult issues. Like Dickens – he and I are natural partners! – I wanted to comment on the world we’re living in.” Casting was interesting too. I’d seen Dilek Rose‘s work before (she plays a Syrian mother and a London police officer among other roles) and was very glad we persuaded her to audition. And I was clear that I wanted Nancy to be strongly regional, rather than London, although it didn’t matter where. I was delighted when Rachel Hamilton from Glasgow was cast.

So how did Chino first get interested in writing plays? “Well I came to it late. I was in my mid-twenties. My daughter was just over a year old and I was looking for something to do – as a creative, black woman. I’d trained briefly as a stage manager when I was 18 so I was drawn to theatre. I went to some writing workshops run by Winston Pinnock at Bristol Old Vic and eventually my first play Women Embrace Two came out of that. It won a rehearsed reading and I realised I’d found a way of telling stories although I might have been put off had I realised that all the support schemes for young playwrights cut off at 25!”

Chino then “trained” privately for six years. “I thought Women Embrace Two was a fluke. I knew that play writing might be The Thing but I didn’t want to mess it up.” So she immersed herself in seeing shows, taking part in workshops, reading plays and studying books about writing.

Then a chance meeting at a matinee at Ustinov Theatre in Bath with the programmer at the Ustinov, who remembered her from Bristol Old Vic, led to another rehearsed reading after she had sent him her current work. Since then the work seems to have been pretty steady.

At present Chino is under commission from National Theatre for a Connections play for 2018. It’s called The Sweetness of a Thing. “It’s a coming of age story with magic realism for a big ensemble and uses a surprising point of view” she explains. She is also commissioned to write a play for Talawa Theatre Company through a Channel 4 playwriting award. “And I’ve got my first assistant director job too which is very exciting” she beams, telling me that “there’s plenty coming up.”

Chino also wants teenagers to find their own voices. “I mentor young people to help them write their first play through New View which is a National Theatre project. 13 to 19 year olds should be telling their own stories, not relying on a 43-year-old woman to do it for them.”

Twist is touring schools and venues until the end of November.