The Rep’s Coming to England emanates the delight that is Baroness Floella Benjamin on the theatrical stage. Illuminated with soft, multicoloured clouds, the dreams and imagination of the children’s entertainer and politician are bright, gentle and blooming in David Wood’s adaptation of the popular children’s book.
“High five, hello” is the warm and welcoming opening number of the musical, complete with integrated British Sign Language at times (all performances bar the first two come with captions, I hasten to add). It’s an inclusivity and communal feel established in the song and then expanded upon by Benjamin (channelled with rich passion and conviction by Paula Kay) addressing the audience directly. Looking back from the moment the peer is awarded the Freedom of the City of London, the tale follows her as a child moving from Trinidad to Britain as part of the Windrush generation, and the adversity she and her family faced when they settled into their new home.
Her Trinidadian house, meanwhile, is represented in the form of a staircase leading up to the front door and two windows. The Rep’s expansive stage appears underused most of the time, often with only a single prop against a hued background downstage. Some of these, mind, are beautiful to look at, such as the neon butterflies and flowers wheeled in on bikes, but a lot of the time we are left to imagine and fill in the contextual gaps on the stage, and as such a lot of the show falls to dialogue to keep the narrative moving.
While a lot of the show is joyous, it doesn’t sugarcoat the abuse faced by Floella and her siblings along the way either, instead handling them frankly, but sensitively. The use of the belt in the classroom, racist dialogue and fighting for food (the former action isn’t actually depicted or carried out), carefully and delicately toe the line between shock and being informative for a young audience – for them to know how to respond to prejudice appropriately and embrace kindness.
Unfortunately, in the first act, there is little conflict available to either propel the plot, or hammer this point home. It takes us right up to the interval before we see Floella make the journey to England, at which point one can’t help but feel as though the opening half of the show was slow and staggered, with little antagonism to motivate the characters, and bouncy musical numbers which are all too similar to each other in composition. One song, on the sights of London, sounds like a big band version of The Flintstones.
All of this changes in the second act, where the variety of theatrical styles on offer make for a more entertaining family experience. The soothing jazz in the first half from Dardie (Kojo Kamara) is explored further in his London home, there’s joyous tap dancing on suitcases, and audience participation in a Play House-style rendition of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”. Solo numbers from Kay’s Benjamin – often in the presence of her Marmie (Bree Smith) are the most impactful, not least because it’s clear that it’s from her that Benjamin adopted the charitable values for which she is lauded. If her Marmie tells her to be strong, she tells us, then strong she shall be.
And as Benjamin/Kay guides us through her story, there’s a sense in her address to us that the same embracing, maternal mindset of her mother is being passed on to us. Her narrative is complete with invaluable lessons young ones could do with learning, and older audiences could do with remembering: to choose kindness; keep smiling; and to embrace courage, confidence and consideration. There’s no finer message than that, and while Benjamin’s childhood is fascinating and unique, it’s this which speaks to us all.
Coming to England is now playing at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 16 April.
All performances until the end of its run are fully captioned.
Production Images: Geraint Lewis.