The cast clad in children’s attire bursts onto the stage to welcome the audience with the first song of this musical adaptation by David Wood of Dame Floella Benjamin’s book to stage play, COMING TO ENGLAND. It’s a jolly, ‘High-Five, Hello’.
It was 1960 when Floella Benjamin arrived on British shores via the Empire Windrush. The story of leaving the Caribbean, in this case, Trinidad, to start a new life in England, the Mother Country, is told through the eyes of a child.
This play steers away from the narrative of black trauma and instead turns some of the negative experiences into stories of triumph leaving black audience members uplifted and proud of our journey and roots
Aged, nearly 11, Floella’s experiences of being at a London school include playground chants of ‘Go back to where you came from’; and questions such as ‘Did you where clothes before you came to England?’. Not much of a welcome from the country that had invited Caribbeans to come and help rebuild, post-war Britain. The children also assume that she’s from Africa but Floella proudly proclaims in a strong Caribbean accent that she’s from the Caribbean.
Floella Benjamin, like all characters is played by a grown-up actor, Paula Kay, who dons Floella’s trademark afro in a bun updo does have a striking resemblance and an incredible voice to boot. I absolutely loved her rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s Smile, especially having heard Floella sing that live last year at the Alfred Fagon Awards.
With musical direction by Ian Oakley, the audience is treated to upbeat, high-energy catchy songs so I do hope the soundtrack will be made available. My seven-year-old daughter said her favourite part of the play was the music, in fact.
I also enjoyed the depiction of Floella’s childhood and loving parents which we don’t often see portrayed on the stage as this play steers away from the narrative of black trauma and instead turns some of the negative experiences into stories of triumph leaving black audience members uplifted and proud of our journey and roots. Talking of black audience members, I do hope that they come to see the play because as usual, we were the minority, on press night, unfortunately.
The exploration of African-Caribbean families having to make the difficult and painful decision of taking a leap of faith in starting a new life in England and leaving behind some of their children due to financial reasons is one that will resonate with many. It was particularly relatable in terms of my own grandparents.
It was interesting to see this from the perspective of children which is not normally the case. Although it was heart-breaking to see how Floella and her siblings were mistreated by a mean ‘aunt’, they did flourish when they were eventually ‘sent for’ and reunited with the rest of their family in the UK, ‘the land of hope and glory’.
Directed with joyful choreographed by Omar F Okai, the scenes set in Trinidad are depicted with soft orange and purple hues with their big, beautiful family home basking in a Caribbean sunset and with the classic song, Oh Island in the Sun, as the musical backdrop.
This is a play for all generations – for little ones to elders, there’s something here for everyone, whether a nostalgic trip down memory lane or a beautiful history lesson on the black Caribbean migration experience.
Kudos to the Birmingham Rep as this was my first time seeing a live-captioned theatre performance which is something I hope we will continue to be rolled out across all theatres.