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A CurtainUp London Review
The Gift

"I don't ever see colour, just people."
— Harriet
The Gift
Shannon Hayes as Princess Sarah and Donna Berlin as Aggie
(Photo: Ellie Kurtz)
Janice Okoh's play The Gift for Eclipse, a Black Theatre company which fosters and supports black artists in the North of England, is a comedy of manners and a satire on race relations over two centuries. Based on Queen Victoria's black goddaughter Sarah Bonetta Davies who was gifted to the queen after she recognised the 5 year old's intelligence, the play is constructed around three tea parties. Sarah was a Yoruba princess who had been captured and enslaved as a child by the King of Dahomey.

The introductory act is set in Brighton in 1862 where Sarah (Shannon Hayes) is trying to train her black maid Aggie (Donna Berlin) how to behave when hosting an afternoon tea party. Whereas Aggie is a cockney with all the facial expression of someone learning about the high life and worried about making mistakes, Sarah is beautifully spoken and elegant as befits a member of Victoria's court supporting her pupil. The result is high comedy as Donna Berlin enjoys her calamitous part.

Their visitors for tea are Mrs Schoen (Rebecca Charles) Sarah's adoptive mother and the Reverend Venn (Richard Teverson) and Harriet Waller (Joanna Brookes) a potential benefactress for the charities supported by Sarah and her husband, Nigerian businessman and philanthropist, Captain James Davies (Dave Fishley). Harriet Waller is seen pocketing a silver spoon while claiming to be connected to Sarah's adopted family. Harriet repeats all the misinformed gossip about Sarah's origins. "I wasn't about to be eaten!" says Sarah. Harriet Waller argues the facts with someone who actually knows.

There is plenty of contemporary wit as they discuss the advent of palm oil and the Reverend Venn says that he has heard good things about turmeric as well as lovely clowning from Aggie, rechristened Agatha for her new role. Sarah says, "Agatha is finding the etiquette hard to follow."

In Act Two after a reading from Robinson Crusoe about finding Friday, so that the set can be changed to the modern day, Sarah (Donna Berlin) a project manager and her husband James a professor of Victorian history and literature are settling into a country house in Cheshire. James and Sarah are black, well educated and affluent. Their other home is in Chelsea. They have adopted Victoria, a white child now aged four. You can start to see mirrors of situations comparing Act One to Act Two.

James has discovered a collection of items previously owned by royalty discovered in Croydon (laughter) by the triple great grandson of Harriet Waller from Act One.

It is in Act Two where the comedy really takes off and we alternately gasp and guffaw. Neighbours Harriet (Rebecca Charles) and Ben (Richard Teverson) have brought a basket of muffins ostensibly to welcome James and Sarah. Mealy mouthed Harriet is nervous and anxious to make a good impression. She starts with reassuring the newcomers that the muffins are gluten free and have no nuts or soya. Trying to establish her food diversity credentials, James sees an opportunity for a joke and tells her that they are lactose intolerant which makes Harriet panic.

When Harriet discusses the adoption of the white child by two black parents, she is skating on thin ice. She suggests that there might be something wrong with the child for her not to given to white adopting parents. Harriet digs herself in deeper by sucking her teeth in disgust and discussing BAME as Barm-mee. James and Sarah respond admirably.

Connecting Act Two with Act Three, Sarah from Act Two strips off and walks into the first set which is now peopled by Queen Victoria (Joanna Brookes) and Sarah Davies. This scene discusses the British Empire's intervention in Africa with its collateral damage to Nigerian culture and society but is a disappointment after the dizzying dramatic and comedic heights of Act Two.

Simon Kenny's beautiful set for the Brighton house is pale and Georgian rather than stuffed, dark and Victorian but allowed as Sarah and husband are off to Africa and everything is packed up. The costumes are equally gorgeous with full width crinolines of silk and lace.

This is a wonderful piece of writing, acting and directing with a really remarkable historical figure as a starting point. The Gift will make you laugh and think seriously about the many forms of racism and deserves to be widely seen.

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The Gift
Written by Janice Okoh
Directed by Dawn Walton
Starring: Donna Berlin, Joanna Brookes, Rebecca Charles, Dave Fishley, Shannon Hayes, Richard Teverson
Designer: Simon Kenny
Movement Director: Vicky Igbokwe
Lighting Design: Johanna Town
Sound Designer: Adrienne Quartly
Running time: Two hours 25 minutes with an interval
Booking at Stratford to 15th February 2020
Box Office Stratford: 020 8534 0310
On tour to Oxford, Bury St Edmunds, Southampton and Scarborough and booking to 11th March 2020
A production from Eclipse Theatre and Belgrade Theatre Coventry
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 29th January 2020 at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, Stratford, E15 1BN (Tube: Stratford)
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