An outrageous play about imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation – and tea.
Review Comments from Opening Night
"a play that rips the mask off white privilege when it tries to present an enlightened face and exposes the pain of those affected by it. The fact that the play is side-splittingly funny in parts only makes the point more poignantly."
...the awkwardness of people trying to pretend to say and think the right things without actually meaning or understanding them... shocking, profound, ordinary and tragic, and utterly believable." Nick Le Mesurier, Leamington Courier
About the Play
The gift of the title is a Black African girl rescued from captors, brought to England and given to Queen Victoria. The Queen adopts her and names her Sarah, who is raised as the ward of a series of trusted guardians within royal circles. We meet Sarah at her Brighton home in 1862, on the eve of her departure for Africa with her businessman husband James. She is expecting a visit from her guardian Mrs Schoen, who brings unexpected and undesirable guests to tea.
In the present day, a middle class black British couple, Sarah an engineer and James an antique dealer, have recently moved to a Cheshire village with their adopted daughter. Sarah and James are discussing her coming to terms with a new project management job in Nigeria, when the doorbell rings. Neighbours Harriet and Ben have brought a “settling in” gift of homemade muffins. They stay for tea with surprising, shocking and hilarious results.
When the two Sarahs take tea with Queen Victoria the consequences are more than two of them could have imagined.
This is an amateur production by arrangement with Nick Hern Books.
In line with our EDI policy, we undertake an EDI impact assessment of all our artistic programming. 'The Gift' by Janice Okoh has a central diversity message notably an exploration of what it means to be of African heritage in Britain and forms of historical and contemporary racism. The playwright specifies the race/ethnicity of particular roles as crucial to the narrative of the story.
The gift in Janice Okoh’s eponymous play is not a thing but a person. Sarah Bonetta (played by Nicola Brome) was an actual African princess given to British imperialists in the 19th century and adopted by Queen Victoria. She was brought up in and around the Royal household, trained, renamed and apparently favoured by the Queen, who regarded her fondly. The play deals with the legacy of such appropriation.
Two timeframes are employed. The first is 1862. Sarah Bonetta and her husband James Davies are preparing to leave Brighton for Africa as missionaries, where they will teach the natives skills such as etiquette and accountancy so that they may have a place in the expanding British Empire. What sort of place is a moot point, because the scene plays with the attitudes of the day through the presence of neighbours who come to wish them well. Or rather to find out what these strange people think they are doing. We might expect the racist overtones and undertones of the conversation to be to the fore, but Janice Okoh mixes them with hilarious comedy, especially in the scenes involving their hapless maid Aggie, (Bernadette Baretto). She, and the cringe inducing gaffes of the visitors make for delicious comedy.
But that is just the beginning. The second act pulls no punches in either comedy or social criticism. Here a different Sarah (Nyasha Daley) is a 21st century structural engineer engaged in complex multinational projects struggling against the sniggering resistance put upon her by her colleagues at work. She is a Black woman married to a Black man, James Davies (Maxveal McLaren), a university professor and collector of antiques. They have a nice house in a nice part of Cheshire, and like their namesakes before them, are visited by well-meaning neighbours curious to meet them. They also have a daughter, Victoria, a White child whom they have adopted.
The comedy comes in Harriet’s (Anne-Marie Greene) awful attempts to be oh-so pc in front of her new Black neighbours. Think Abigail from Abigail’s party, only funnier, more embarrassing, more awful, more true to life. The play and the performance neatly skewer the awkwardness of people trying to pretend to say and think the right things without actually meaning or understanding them. There’s a sting in the tale of these seemingly well-intentioned but misguided attempts at neighbourliness, which I won’t tell you about. Only it hits like an earthquake when it comes. It is shocking, profound, ordinary and tragic, and utterly believable.
The final act is an amalgam of the two previous scenes. Here 21st century Sarah sits beside Victorian Sarah in Windsor Palace as she takes tea with the Queen. The former goads the latter into realising the oppression she is experiencing. She may be friends, of sorts, with the Queen, but she is still a novelty. Here the message is rammed home in a final speech by Sarah, who tells it like it is. This scene is, for my money, a bit too heavy in meaning. But it is a fitting coda to a play that rips the mask off White privilege when it tries to present an enlightened face and exposes the pain of those affected by it. The fact that the play is side-splittingly funny in parts only makes the point more poignantly.
If I have any criticisms, I’d say the production is a little slow to start, and sometimes the actors stand too still when they deliver their lines, especially in the first act. Audiences might wonder if the story of Sarah Bonetta is true. It is in outline, but the play, and this sensitive, heartfelt production tell a different truth to the factual one, which runs as deep today as ever.
Nick Le Mesurier
To begin at the beginning . . . Some of us needed to, having only seen Act Two so far thanks to a rude intrusion by Covid.
For Act One we’re going back to 1862. British Imperialism is rampant. So are the attitudes that it spawned. They’re voiced by Mrs Harriet Waller once she has recovered her breath after the long, steep walk from the station in the company of a somewhat pompous Reverend Venn.
Having seen off the first of many cups of tea (“not too sweet, thank you; just four sugars”) Mrs Waller also recovers her hauteur enough to start proclaiming about African “savagery” and “cannibalism”. Never mind that her hosts are a posh black couple called Davies.
James Davies has recently married Sarah Bonetta, an orphaned African princess adopted by Queen Victoria and raised as a lady by her guardian. Mrs Schoen is present during this sometimes excruciatingly amusing opening scene, overseeing the flow of tea into fine china and the distribution of scones galore by the hapless servant Aggie.
Yes, she’s from the lower orders, but class is not the main issue in this play. Racism is. How it has changed. And how it hasn’t.
Fast forward 120 years to the present day for Act Two. We’re at the home of Sarah and James who’ve recently moved from Chelsea to Cheshire. She’s a successful engineer; he’s a university lecturer and dealer in second-hand books. Both are black. But resting on one of the book cases lined with leather-bound tomes is a photograph of their adopted daughter. Called Victoria, as it happens. It also happens that she’s white.
"We feel white,” Sarah says at one point during another excruciating conversation with new neighbours Harriet and Ben who’ve called round with lemon drizzle cake and gluten-free muffins. Both made by Harriet who is desperately keen to appear politically correct.
Again it’s funny, in parts. As neighbourliness begins to unravel, it becomes evident why James has his arm in a sling and a plaster on his forehead. It also becomes obvious that Sarah is beginning to become more troubled.
Soon after the awkward exit of the neighbours, she has stripped down to bra and pants to follow them through the front door.
She reappears in a surreal last act, stylishly clad and sitting on a sofa with the other Sarah. Yes, Victorian Sarah Bonettaand, yes, Queen Victoria is there too. For a while at least. History is about to be rewritten.
It seemed a quite a while since our last visit to the century before last, enlivened by two fine cameo performances by Lillian McGrath as Mrs Waller and Andrew Tryeras the Rev Venn.
Maxveal Mclaren proved exceptionally smooth as James Davies in the 19th century and the other James in the 21st. And Anne-marie Greene captured memorably Harriet’s decline from gushing supplier of gluten-free muffins to not-so-good neighbour.
This was a play that provoked much bar-side discussion during two intervals and indeed after the final curtain.