REVIEW: New show in Coventry 'could be one of the landmark plays of our time'

Shannon Hayes (Sarah Bonetta) and Joanna Brookes (Queen Victoria). Picture: Ellie Kurttz
Shannon Hayes (Sarah Bonetta) and Joanna Brookes (Queen Victoria). Picture: Ellie Kurttz

Nick Le Mesurier reviews The Gift at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

The Gift, by Janice Okoh, is a comedy of manners that gently tears apart the masks we use to disguise our prejudices. It’s a slow burner, very funny in places, clever and subtle, and in my view could become one of the landmark plays of our time.

Donna Berlin (Aggie) and Shannon Hayes (Sarah Bonetta). Picture: Ellie Kurttz

Donna Berlin (Aggie) and Shannon Hayes (Sarah Bonetta). Picture: Ellie Kurttz

In Act 1 we are in Victorian times. Sarah Bonetta Davies (Shannon Hayes) is the eponymous ‘gift’, a Nigerian woman who was given to Queen Victoria as a girl and brought up as her goddaughter. Sarah actually existed, one of many forgotten Britons whose stories are gradually coming to light, not least through the Belgrade’s efforts. We encounter her as she is about to leave for colonial Nigeria to teach etiquette to the natives, an emissary of the Empire.

Etiquette features strongly throughout this play, often centred on the drinking of tea, but always revealed to be a mask for something deeper, nastier. Sarah is visited by neighbours, well-meaning white people who declare themselves opposed to slavery and who so admire her efforts to civilise the locals. They are not so much wicked as bewildered, unaware of how to relate to a black woman who is also effectively a member of the Royal household.

It’s an uncomfortable position to occupy, but it doesn’t stop there. The second act is set in modern times. Here Sarah (this time played by Donna Berlin) is a successful middle class black woman in a white man’s world. She and her husband James (Dave Fishley) have adopted a daughter, Victoria, a white child, something which, along with her status, puts their neighbours at a disadvantage. They arrive with a secret to confess, an act of ‘unintentional’ racism done in haste and later regretted, though as the play reveals, only superficially. There are moments of great comedy, as when Harriet (Rebecca Charles) declares she has been told she can dance like a BAME, and then does, with hilarious effect.

The genius of this play is the way it slowly reveals the layers of hypocrisy that even well-meaning people may disguise in their right-on politics. Overt racism in the form of protests and insults happens in the play off-stage: the dangerous stuff is what goes on disguised in full sight. But it is all done so subtly, and with such humour that you don’t realise how deeply you’ve been challenged. But you have. This is rammed home when Sarah, in an act of surreal departure, removes her clothes onstage, revealing the true, naked woman inside buffeted by conflicting expectations. It’s a bold move and likely to be controversial, but I felt it worked.

Donna Berlin (Sarah) and Dave Fishley (James). Picture: Ellie Kurttz

Donna Berlin (Sarah) and Dave Fishley (James). Picture: Ellie Kurttz

The last act brings the first Sarah into direct contact with Queen Victoria (Joanna Brookes), only this time she is accompanied by the later Sarah acting as a kind of ghost of the future, whispering doubt in her ear about her complicity in a system that is responsible for their subordination. I felt this part was a little too rich in ideas and symbolism.

The Gift is a play bursting with messages, conveyed through dialogue that is both warmly human, very funny and at the same time disturbingly frank. It reminded me somewhat of Abigail’s Party for its satirical effect. For all that it is a little slow in places, it is a powerful, enlightening and uplifting experience.

* The Gift runs until Saturday January 25. Visit belgrade,co.uk or call 024 7655 3055 to book.