dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Imaginative and colourful but with a serious message
Floella Benjamin may be best known to many of us for her years presenting the children's television shows Play School and Play Away but now the story based on her childhood, Coming to England, has been turned into a family musical.
The show is adapted by David Wood whose CV includes a host of successful children's productions including Roald Dahl's The BFG and The Witches and the classic Tom's Midnight Garden. Again he turns his magic to this tale, with plenty of humour but an underlying message that life for a West Indian child in London was not easy.
The story centres around Floella's family as they leave Trinidad for England, believing they can achieve better lives in the Mother Country. But instead, they discover a country riddled with racism from the playground to the local neighbourhood.
The stalwart of the family is Marmie, played with understated power and charm by Bree Smith. Here is a woman who refuses to be cowed. She meets rudeness with dignity and barriers with optimism – and her belief that the family will succeed if they work and the children study is borne out in the ensuing story.
Paula Kay's Floella is both naïve child and wise adult as the story moves back and forth in timeframe. In a performance packed full of energy, Kay also has a beautiful singing voice which is used to full effect in a series of fun or poignant numbers.
Directed by Omar F Okai, the production is very consciously a theatre show with the Floella character frequently stepping out of the story to narrate or explain an incident to the audience. At times this can feel disjointed. A Play School scene in which Floella fronts the show and encourages the audience to join in song may be a moment of nostalgia for adults who remember the television programme but it also sits strangely in the timeline and feels different in tone from much of the rest of the show.
The production looks lush thanks to some colourful and imaginative sets by Bretta Gerecke and costumes by Louie Whitemore. From the sunshine-filled family home in Trinidad, onto the ocean liner which brings four of the children to England and into the cramped apartment in London, the staging evokes not just the physical scenes but also the emotions attached to each place.
Premiered at Birmingham Rep, Coming to England is a colourful carnival of experiences, emotions and harsh realities. We know from its first scene that Floella will rise above the challenges to achieve success in life and it is the journey as much as the destination which pulls us in.
With memorable songs, some lovely touches of characterisation and a strong message, this is a show likely to go beyond Birmingham.