Sitting in the auditorium at Birmingham Rep with my 12-year-old daughter in anticipation of watching the premiere of Floella Benjamin’s Coming To England ...
I couldn’t help but think about the controversial decision The Rep made by hiring out their spaces to the Ministry Of Justice for court cases during lockdown. The “purely financial decision” sparked outrage, with many locals claiming the decision had alienated audiences and stopped The Rep from being a safe space for the oppressed and marginalised especially with the overrepresentation of black people in the criminal justice system due to racial bias and institutional racism.
As a result, at the end of 2020 Talawa, one of our leading Black theatre companies cancelled their major partnership with The Rep due to the backlash [read Talawa’s statement via The Voice Newspaper]. Birmingham Rep declined to comment on Talawa’s decision, though it previously said it is “doing our utmost to fight for the survival of The Rep and we sincerely wish we weren’t in these extraordinary circumstances“, and, “We made a decision that we believe to be in the best interests of the theatre facing a very serious situation to which there are no easy answers...” [more on the story via bbc.co.uk].
Back to the matter at hand, when I see a musical about a black woman, with a black director (Omar F Okai) and majority black cast I shouldn’t have to question The Rep’s Statement. However sadly after watching Okai’s 84 minute production of Coming To England, I am not at all convinced this show is for “us”.
The production is David Wood’s adaptation of Baroness Floella Benjamin’s book Coming To England – first published in 1995. The true story follows a young and hopeful Floella Benjamin migrating from Trinidad to the ‘mother land’ in the 1960’s, when West Indians were invited to move to England to help rebuild the country after the WWII. The musical focuses on Floella’s discovery that England isn’t as welcoming as she expected but instead a place where West Indian people had to experience hate and hostility.
Despite Bretta Gerecke’s simple yet functional set, it often looked bare and swallowed up on The Rep’s vast Main stage. Gerecke’s lighting was unable to capture the vibrant colours of the Caribbean, which resulted in hardly any difference between the sunny shores and blue skies of Trinidad to the dreary greyness of England.
Okai’s production doesn’t get a lot of things right however it does showcase some considerable talent among its cast. Paula Kay as Floella earnestly tries her best with monologues almost as long as a Shakespearean sonnet but read like a work presentation plagiarised from Wikipedia. At times I questioned whether I had accidentally walked into a Ted Talk at Birmingham Conference and Events Centre and not Birmingham’s most prominent theatre. Sadly the protagonist is just all too perfect and there just isn’t enough vulnerability for us to form much empathy. Kay’s overabundance of emotion for Floella’s plight of racism, doesn’t connect because she repeatedly declares that her smile is her impenetrable armour … without any sense of irony.
Kojo Kamara and Bree Smith as Floella’s parents are uniformly magnificent. Smith brings such warmth to Marmie and absolutely soars in her number “The End Of The Tunnel”. Kamara blazes as Dardie, enormously charismatic, with an indomitable emotional strength. Whilst also managing to deliver beautiful jazzy scores on the saxophone. All the actors perform their roles vigorously despite none of their characters ever rising above being two dimensional or caricatures.
Part of the Coming to England’s problem is that it just doesn’t know whether it’s a musical or Theatre In Education. The staging just doesn’t follow the structure of modern children’s theatre. There is far too much going on during scenes, with the family house relentlessly wheeled on and off whilst there is action on stage.
Benjamin and David Wood highlight the clearly displaced fear and illogical racial hatred which many mature children could understand. Then they shoehorn in infantile CBBC-esque songs like “If You’re Happy and You Know It” and “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”. Which show a clear lack of understanding of the fast maturing modern day children from Benjamin’s 1970’s Play School days.
The Baroness herself came up on stage towards the end of the show and proclaimed that “this is a story that hasn’t been told before with such truth and honesty”. However, with the sensational stage production of Andrea Levy’s Small Island running at The National Theatre, this is an incredibly a brash claim.
Coming To England could be a first in documenting the Windrush through the eyes of a child for children. However, I’m sure children would benefit more from having more fleshed out characters and being taken on an epic journey.
The more sinister and insidious concerns that poke their way to the surface are lost in the musical’s messaging. Acknowledging historical legacies of colonialism in the UK needs to be done delicately and skilfully. Benjamin has done tremendously well to become a television favourite of the 70’s, businesswoman and appointed to the House Of Lords. However, where I can consume the older generational antidote “You have to work twice as hard as everyone else”, to claim that she smiles at the face of racial adversity because “winners smile” is problematic and needs challenging.
Kay’s Floella had a tough task getting audience participation from adults in the audience. I wanted to shout out “What about your mental health?” When yet again Benjamin was talking about her smile which then followed into a rendition of Nat King Cole’s Smile. I suggest The Baroness take a read of Langston Hughes’ Poem, Minstrel Man –
“Because my mouth is wide with laughter and my throat is deep with song, you don’t think I suffer after I held my pain so long.”
Having a smile of amour after experiencing grim scenes of racism is remarkable especially in post-war Britain. However, when my 12 year old daughter turned round and said to me “Daddy we don’t smile at racism” I’d recommend that this messaging is outmoded in 2022.
Coming To England appears to be Birmingham Rep’s Theatre’s drive to put black bums on seats and repair distrust, no matter how the low calibre or dangerous of a message.
Guest review of Coming to England is by Devonte Jones.
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Coming to England is currently showing at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until April 22nd. Find out more here