Coming to England – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

Writer: Floella Benjamin

Adaptor: David Wood

Director: Omar F Okai

Coming to England is a vibrant, colourful celebration of the life of Floella Benjamin. After a high energy welcome, with the cast singing and signing High Five, Hello very much in the style of 1970s children’s television that first brought Benjamin to prominence, the adult Benjamin – played superbly by Paula Kay – comes to the front to tell her story. And, at first, it’s a commonplace story, of how the mother country’s postwar need for labour led to Caribbean families uprooting themselves and travelling thousands of miles in the hope of a new life. But money was tight and initially only Benjamin’s father, her beloved Dardie, can make the journey. A year later and Marmie and the two youngest children follow, with Benjamin and her other three siblings left in foster homes for fifteen months before the family was reunited. Through hard work, the family gradually improved their lot, from sharing a single room to buying the family home in Beckenham that was to be the home of Marmie and Dardie for forty years.

Of course, the experience was rarely a smooth one. The move from an apparently idyllic tropical life – beautifully captured through song and puppetry – to life in the grey built up capital had many pitfalls. The foster parents in Trinidad who treated their charges with casual cruelty as unpaid servants or objects for amusement were only the beginning; the family was to face overt racism in London, borne out of fear and ignorance. So we see schoolchildren taunting the newcomers, asking if they wore clothes in the jungle back home. Or, more insidiously, teachers and adults simply overlooking the contribution a black child might make or casually assuming they were less trustworthy than their white counterparts. The scenes showing this behaviour are heart-wrenchingly poignant as one is transported back to a darker age in history – just a few short years ago.

Later, Benjamin would record her experiences in her 1997 book Coming to England, which forms the basis for this show, adapted by David Wood. Wood’s adaptation does not shy away from the strong and often dark themes in the book, while never losing sight of the simple joys in family life. Omar F Okai’s direction moves the production along swiftly while allowing time for the messages about family life or the experiences of the Benjamin family to sink in. The mood and our emotions are skilfully manipulated as we share the highs and lows.

And at the heart is Paula Kay as Benjamin. She plays her as the self-assured adult and as the nervous and precocious child, eager to please. She moves from narrator to participant and back with ease – and has a belting singing voice to boot. One soon feels that she is Benjamin, so thoroughly does she inhabit the role. The purveyor of wisdom, and an obvious influence on the young Benjamin, is Marmie, brought to us by Bree Smith. Smith brings out her character’s inner strength and wisdom well, enabling and encouraging her children, all of whom, we later learn, have moved on to be successful in a variety of spheres, no doubt in part thanks to the real Marmie’s influence. A hard-working ensemble cast brings us Benjamin’s siblings and a variety of other characters, from thoughtless schoolchildren to narrow-minded house-owners concerned about the value of their property. If there is a weakness, it’s that the luscious music that transports us around the world and into the characters’ lives is pre-recorded rather than played live.

Coming to England takes us on a journey, a journey that is ultimately uplifting allowing spirits to soar on the wings of joyful music and colourful puppetry. But along the way, there are moments of darkness, supported by soulful singing. It’s a family show from which all ages will take something, will learn something: educational without becoming preachy, it’s a fitting tribute to Benjamin and her achievements after coming to England.

Runs Until 16 April 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

A Joyful Celebration

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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