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Theatre review: The Gift

Vision of
the past:
Hayes and
Berlin in


The Gift

Theatre Royal Stratford East, London. Then touring ★★★★✩

JUST as Brexiteers are revelling in all things British, this subversive reality check about the country’s attitudes towards race hits the stage.

Among gifts Queen Victoria received from her empire was a young Nigerian girl who, renamed Sarah Forbes Bonetta, was raised as an adopted princess.

From this fact, Janice Okoh has written a play that connects 19th century and present day Britain like a hotline.

It also features two excruciatingly funny tea parties. The first — in 1862 — sees Shannon Hayes, as a serenely regal Sarah, prepare to decamp from her Brighton home with husband James (Dave Fishley) to travel to Africa.

Their white tea guests include social-climbing heiress Harriet Walker (Joanna Brookes, who also plays the monarch).

It’s a meeting in which Walker’s blunt comments about her royal host’s background strain tea party etiquette like a fist shoved into a lace glove.

Regal aid: Harriet Walker as the queen

Then Dawn Walton’s well-acted production vaults into the 21st century where modern, black British Sarah (Donna Berlin, who earlier plays the princess’s awkward servant), and husband James (Fishley again) are visited by white neighbours Ben and Harriet. Again, the guests’ well-meaning small-talk is loaded with toe-curling, unintentional racism.

When Harriet assumes their hosts prefer the term BAME, rather than black, the clumsy virtue signalling is fantastically countered by Berlin’s deadpan Sarah who says she prefers the term white. ‘Culturally,’ she adds, with a pause, to let them stew.

There are shades here of such racially charged modern American classics as Clybourne Park and The Octoroon. It’s a shame that Okoh can’t resist ramming home her message about colonial legacy.

But at its best, this is a bold exploration of black Britishness that is as agonising as it is funny.