COMING TO ENGLAND
The Rep, Birmingham, Monday 4th April 2022
Much-loved TV presenter and now baroness Floella Benjamin wrote a book about her early life, telling how she and her family came to this country and what happened when they got here. That book has now been dramatized by prolific children’s playwright David Wood in this musical retelling, taking us back to Trinidad where it all began. There’s an idyllic tone to these early scenes, in a poor-but-happy kind of way, as Floella and her siblings learn British history at school and sing songs of the empire. They consider themselves British. They have a rude awakening coming…
Leading the ensemble cast is Paula Kay as Floella, our narrator, in a captivating performance. Kay carries the show with an irrepressible portrayal of the presenter as a young girl, and she is ably supported by Yazmin Belo as big sister Sandra, Tarik Frimpong, Jay Marsh, and Dale Mathurin as brothers Roy, Ellington, and Lester. Kojo Kamara’s Dardie, Floella’s father, plays a lovely saxophone (Mr Benjamin harboured ambitions to be a musician); and Bree Smith exudes warm-heartedness and wisdom as Marmie, the mother – the show is very much a tribute to Floella’s mum, and all those brave women like her.
Upon arrival, the family finds the streets of London are paved with bigots, but despite the harsh reception, they put down roots and begin to make something of themselves. There is a strong message running throughout: keep smiling, winners smile.
The show touches on Benjamin’s experiences but strangely absent is a scene tackling how she got into television. The second act opens with an a capella rendition of the theme to Play School and Paula Kay cajoles us into participating in If You’re Happy and You Know It. And we do, because it’s fun. But the show keeps something of this patronising tone to the end, exhorting us to shout out and clap, as if we are still young viewers.
Many of the songs you will have heard before. Island in the Sun, Brown Girl in the Ring… the reggae/calypso flavours of the music provide an irresistible carnival atmosphere, matched by the colourful costumes and giant butterfly props. Kay treats us to a beautiful rendition of Smile. Throughout, the ensemble singing is lovely, and there is energetic choreography by director Omar F Okai.
It all breezes along pleasantly, with only passing clouds to mar the experience: the ugly face of racial hatred and prejudice rears up now and then, but Floella learns to smile through it and is indeed an excellent role model.
This colourful, exuberant production is more than the biography of a remarkable public figure. It is also a lesson in social history, with a message of hope and empowerment for the future.
☆ ☆ ☆ ☆