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Coming to England (Susan Elkin reviews)

Show: Coming to England

Society: Birmingham Rep (professional)

Venue: Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Broad Street, Birmingham, West Midlands B1 2EP

Credits: By Floella Benjamin. Adapted by David Wood. Produced by Floella Benjamin, Keith Taylor and Nicoll Entertainment

Coming to England

4 stars

All photos: Geraint Lewis

Floella Benjamin’s truthful but generally update account of arriving in England from Trinidad is effectively Small Island from a child’s point of view and it’s interesting to have seen both shows within a month. David Wood has created a pacey stage piece by flipping the story on its head and adding some good songs.

Benjamin’s story is linear but Wood begins with her elevation to the House of Lords and then doubles back to the bullying and racism she encountered as a child newly arrived in grey London. Thereafter we’re in Trinidad until the last four children finally board ship and set sail for the Motherland.

Of course Benjamin’s memories of her Trinidadian childhood are romanticised with a huge contrast between the colours, smells, flora and fauna of the Caribbean compared with 1960s England. Director and choreographer, Omar F Okai and designer Bretta Gerecke focus very effectively on those contrasts with the giant flowers being an especial high spot along with Floella and her five siblings enjoying a lively carnival. Ian Oakley’s musical arrangements provide joyously evocative music.

Congratulations to casting director Annelie Powell for finding an actor – Paula Kay – who has Floella Benjamin (present on press night, of course) perfectly and looks very much like her.  Many people in the audience will have warm memories of her on Play School and other TV programmes and Kay has the same distinctive way of dancing and singing. Also neat and appropriate is her use of a Trinidadian accent for all the childhood scenes and RP as an adult looking back. It highlights the way the young Benjamin adapted and gets round the potential problem of adults playing children. It’s a fine performance.

The energetic ensemble is  fabulously strong and I loved Kojo Kamara’s jazz number as Floella’s father who so desperately wanted to come to England because he thought there would be more musical opportunities here §A. Bree Smith is a very versatile actor too – warm and loving as Mamie, the children’s mother, fierce as their teacher in Trinidad and hateful as their foster mother as they wait to be summoned to England.

All in all this is a warm, uplifting show which also addresses all the issues which haven’t gone away – witness George Floyd and Black Lives Matter. I loved it.

First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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