Writer: Amanda Wilkins
Director: Rachael Nanyonjo
Fairfield Halls is the perfect place to stage the life story of one of Croydon’s most gifted residents, and at a time when Croydon is London’s current Borough of Culture. Black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was well-known at the turn of the 20th century, particularly for his Hiawatha Wedding Feast but his name was almost erased from history after his death. Talawa Theatre’s vibrant play is a call for recognition.
Amanda Wilkin’s play begins thrillingly with Song, a young music student living in our own times, signalling the actors to come on stage like an orchestra’s conductor. A real orchestra of six is ready, tuning up, behind her. It’s an exciting start and the energy never wavers.
While studying music, Song reads about the life and works of Coleridge-Taylor, and she can’t believe that she has not heard of him before and wonders why his works aren’t discussed in the modules she takes. The composers they study are all white. They are also all male, which could be the focus of another play entirely.
As she reads about Coleridge-Taylor, his short life is staged alongside her own struggles at university. As the composer, and looking uncannily like him, is Paul Adeyefa who brings a pleasing gravitas to his character. In what are some of the best scenes of the play we see Coleridge-Taylor attend the Royal College of Music where he begins to carve out his career. But out of college, problems accompany his success. Adeyefa subtly shows how growing financial burdens gnaw away at his character’s once bright-eyed optimism.
Coleridge-Taylor’s story is so interesting, and Adeyefa’s performance so engaging that Song’s own battle with writer’s block and with an academic system that is yet to decolonise the syllabus is not as gripping. This is especially apparent in the first half where her story takes too long to surface. However, Kibong Tanji as Song shines throughout and, after an odd lull in the narrative representing the COVID pandemic, is full of fighting spirit and determination.
The two actors are supported by an excellent cast where each performer takes on many roles. Matthew Romain is excellent as Coleridge-Taylor’s best friend composer William Hurlstone and as Song’s rather creepy fellow student. Alice Stokoe confidently switches between Song’s best friend and Coleridge-Taylor’s wife. As all of the music teachers, in the past and in the present, Barnaby Power makes each seem very different. Deborah Tracey and David Monteith are funny as Song’s parents and dignified as the American spiritual singers that Coleridge-Taylor meets in London. They create swirling parallel worlds.
The six musicians at the back of the very smart – but also very warm – Talawa Studios provide a soundtrack that includes original music by Cassie Kinoshi and, of course, by Coleridge-Taylor. As musical director, Rio Kai leads the musicians with aplomb, and all six play the last Coleridge-Taylor piece with such zeal it’s hard to work out why the composer has been forgotten for such a long time.
Rachael Nanyonjo directs the cast ably, but as a whole Recognition could do with a few edits. Telling two stories instead of one means that there are a few flat periods in the two-and-a-half-hour running time. Some neat cutting of repeated scenes could cut the play into a more manageable two hours which might appeal more to schools in the area.
But it’s definitely worth the trip out to Croydon, and Recognition is only one of the first events of This is Croydon, London Borough of Culture 2023’s programme that is taking place this summer.
Runs until 24 June 2023