This isn’t a sponsored post.
BrumHour is invited to review and share about both touring productions and home produced theatre throughout the year by Belgrade Theatre.
For Brum Radio’s Interval Theatre, Eleanor Lawson spoke to Richard Teverson, Dave Fishley and director Dawn Walton about The Gift:
By Eleanor Lawson twitter.com/Elle_Lawson
The Gift at Belgrade Theatre
Written by Janice Okoh directed by Dawn Walton
1862 Brighton: Sarah (played by Shannon Hayes), an African girl given to Queen Victoria as a gift when she was seven years old, is freshly married and preparing to return to Africa to start a new life. In the present day, Sarah and James (played by Donna Berlin and Dave Fishley respectively) are a black middle-class couple in the suburbs of Chester, with their adopted daughter, who just so happens to be white. James has been wrestled to the ground by the police after suspicion that the couple has kidnapped their adopted daughter. And then the neighbours come round …
The two times hold a mirror up to each other, bouncing light off the prejudices of each society to show how eerily similar people remain in regards to race two centuries apart. Whether it’s a more subtle fetishisation of black culture and faux liberal outrage in the 21st century, or a white woman being physically repelled by a black man in the 19th, both settings show the insidious racism in each other. Both Sarah’s stare into thin air like ghosts at their own social gatherings as grimy opinions builds up around them.
If you thought from the poster that this was a twee comedy of manners or historical biography of Queen Victoria, you couldn’t be more wrong. This is a radical play that pulses and writhes with anger. Tea parties link the two time periods as a vehicle to show how the idea of etiquette polices behaviour, enforcing white middle-class ideals on those who aspire to climb the social ladder. Victorian Sarah has been groomed into the model of perfect behaviour with her perfect RP accent, which she tries to replicate in her maid Aggie.
An audio recording of an extract from Robinson Crusoe bridges the two time periods, as Crusoe tries to tame the savagery he believes to be in the native islander, Friday. Etiquette is proved to be another form of colonisation, another way of policing behaviour that is not perceived to be white enough.
Aggie, played by Donna Berlin, becomes Sarah in the 21st-century: while time has allowed black women to climb up in the world, barriers have sprung up to replace the ones cut down, and aspiration is still modelled on whiteness. Aggie is borderline hysterical with fear, but Sarah’s fear of being left behind in the workplace and harassed by white neighbours leads to her own erratic behaviour.
While these are all heavy topics, they’re delivered through absurd comedy, with each one-liner that makes the audience howl packing a fierce punch with it. You’re forced to interrogate why you’re laughing, and if you laugh at a bigoted character, are you still in some way allowing their prejudices to slip by unpunished? Harriet and Ben spurt out hilarious one-liner after one-liner, from ‘We’ve got nothing against crack’ to ‘I was once told I danced like a BAME woman’. They are ridiculous so we can laugh at them, but each escalation of ignorance brings out more menacing undertones. Political correctness can easily mask damaging prejudice, and white women’s tears are easily weaponised.
Janice Okoh’s writing and Dawn Walton’s direction are excellent, with each line carrying weight. It’s also incredibly easy to recognise each character as someone you know (and often wish you didn’t). With the final scene, reality dissolves and the story really ripens into something rich in imagery and potential, with tension brewing in the music as the characters reach breaking point. It’s a darkly utopian ending thick with both violence and hope.
It’s history, but not as you know it.
The Gift is at Belgrade Theatre until 25th January. Book tickets here: belgrade.co.uk/event/the-gift
This isn’t a sponsored post.
Eleanor Lawson presents and produces Interval Theatre Tuesdays at 3pm on Brum Radio.