Review: Coming to England

Jessica Harris went along to Birmingham Rep.

A child’s perspective on events is always revealing. In Coming to England, a musical production for children and families, the child is Floella Benjamin, who first came to public attention as presenter on BBC’s Play School in 1976.

Through her eyes, we see her early childhood in Trinidad. Then we see the consequences of her family’s decision to respond to the call for people in the Caribbean and other Commonwealth countries to migrate to these shores, to help rebuild Britain in the aftermath of the second world war.

In the first act, skies are sunny, the air is filled with butterflies, and laughter and games prevail. Education is esteemed and family is all. However, education is also partial: Floella knows of the 1948 Nationality Act which affirmed what had been true for decades, namely that anyone born in the empire had the rights of a British citizen. But her history lessons were from a British perspective, and no-one told her about slavery, or about how the British had forced Trinidadian people to forego their history and culture.

Pic – Geraint Lewis

In the second act, the reality of migration in the 1960s to an unwelcoming Britain kicks in: skies are grey, decent and affordable housing is unavailable and racism is rife. From the mental abuse of playground taunts to actions intended to physically harm her family, her teenage years are in marked contrast to the childhood she left behind.

The issues raised in the production are important and highly relevant in today’s world. The central character of Floella is given space to step outside her childhood self and to comment on wider events. And so, in this stage adaptation of Benjamin’s book, it’s surprising that no mention is made of what racism looks like in contemporary Britain or of the ongoing Windrush scandal.

As a cultural producer and a politician (she was made a peer in 2010), Benjamin has campaigned to raise awareness of Windrush. Yet there is no reference to the hundreds of Commonwealth citizens who are still being wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights. The play’s final message to smile in the face of adversity, and to be proud of your cultural heritage, feels somewhat flat when positioned in this wider context. Yes, resilience is important to advancing change: in Floella’s words, “If this boy doesn’t like the colour of your skin, it’s his problem not yours.” But so is awareness that racism needs challenging at a structural level: today’s children are surely astute enough to appreciate that problems remain.

The cast in Coming to England was strong, as was the quality of the singing. Paula Kay as Floella had a particularly distinctive stage presence and a lovely voice. The production itself could have been more nuanced: moments of dramatic tension were few and there was little variation of tone throughout. Choreography was largely effective – a dance sequence around suitcases worked well. But there were moments when movement could have been used more extensively to contribute to the dynamics.

Songs, many sung acapella, came from a range of genres, including Harry Belafonte’s Island in the Sun, the traditional children’s song to the islands of the West Indies, Brown Girl in the Ring, and Nat King Cole’s Smile.

The production was adapted from Floella Benjamin’s book Coming to England by David Wood. Director and Choreographer was Omar F Okai. Musical Director and additional arrangements were by Dr Matthew Malone.

Coming to England is at the Birmingham Rep until 16th April, and is part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival surrounding the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games. Further information.