Review: The Gift at Theatre Royal Stratford East

Dave Fishley and Donna Berlin rehearse. Picture: Ellie Kurtz

Dave Fishley and Donna Berlin rehearse. Picture: Ellie Kurtz - Credit: Archant

In Janice Okoh’s play The Gift, now playing at Stratford East, an extraordinary story is given equally remarkable treatment.

It tells the story of Sarah Forbes Benetta, an African princess of the Yoruba people who became Queen Victoria's goddaughter after being orphaned through warfare and sold into slavery.

Plans for her life to be sacrificed were thwarted by a Royal Navy captain who convinced her captors to instead present her as a gift to the queen, who, impressed with her intelligence, eased her passage into middle class life.

But instead of simply retelling Sarah's story, Okoh compares her experiences trying to act according to the requirements of Victorian society with that of another Sarah, a black middle class professional in a present-day Cheshire village.

The play begins with Sarah Forbes Benetta (Shannon Hayes) in a whitewashed Brighton drawing room, teaching her hapless servant how to fit into "polite" society over tea, to hilarious effect.

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The racism of the period is largely conveyed in a visit by an apparently wealthy, philanthropic do-gooder, whose talk of "natives" and image of Africa betray a sense of British superiority.

Sarah is acutely aware of the racist attitudes prevalent in Victorian society, but etiquette prevents her calling it out. While she longs to escape, she is dreading a return to Africa with her husband, wealthy businessman Captain James Davies (Dave Fishley).

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From Brighton in 1862 the audience is transported to modern-day Britain where we encounter another Sarah (Donna Berlin), her husband and adopted, white daughter.

The two Sarahs have plenty of parallels but the differences are more revealing.

This Sarah, as equally intelligent as her 19th century namesake, sees straight through the inherent racism of her white neighbours, who come bearing cakes, but who hide a nasty secret.

Exposing their prejudices, Sarah toys with the pair to comic though unsettling effect.

The Gift draws to a conclusion when both Sarahs and Queen Victoria meet. Modern Sarah, now stripped of her middle class clothes, quietly seethes against her historic counterpart's submissive attitude towards the monarch until her final comeuppance.

A challenging, innovative play directed by Dawn Walton, The Gift raises important questions as to how we deal with race now, as well as in the past.

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