Writer Ed King / Photographer Geraint Lewis
“My smile is my armour…”
Outside is rain soaked and grey, but inside the Birmingham Rep are colourful balloons, calypso music, and the lure of rum cocktails on a Monday. It’s a stark contrast, one I could get used to, and an appropriate metaphor for the journey we are about to witness, albeit in reverse.
Tonight is the “world premiere” of Floella Benjamin’s autobiography turned musical, Coming to England – adapted for the stage by David Wood, the longstanding and celebrated children’s playwright (and gun toting anti-establishment public schoolboy in If..)
Originally published by Pavilion Books in 1996, then again by Pan Macmillan as a children’s picture book, the personal account tells of the hopes and racism that surrounded Floella Benjamin and her family when they moved from Trinidad as part of the now called Windrush generation.
Overcoming the bigotry she suffered both at school and in the London suburbs, Coming to England tells how the 10 year old Floella battled through these cruelties and challenges to become one of the most well known and loved faces of children’s television – serving as one of the longest standing presenters of the phenomenally popular Play School, amongst an impressive portfolio on big and small screen.
Although often remembered for her presenting work, Benjamin’s rising prominence in Britain was far from childish. She received her first OBE for her services to broadcasting in 2001, was appointed Baroness of Beckenham by the Liberal Democrats in 2010, then made a Dame in 2020 by the royal family she unashamedly venerates.
But the purported land of hope and glory was not as welcoming as many had believed it would be, with even the fiercely patriotic still being judged by the colour of their skin. As the young and confused Floella is quick to tell us on stage, “…but we were British through and through.”
Coming to England, begins with a happy and literally clappy opening number. The tone is set by the energetic ensemble, swapping costumes and roles as they dance, play, and smile across every square of the stage; this one’s for the children.
Following a brief reference to the royal honours, we are transported to Floella’s early family home in Trinidad, “a wooden house on stilts,” with the rose tinted memories of childhood in warmer climates. Butterflies and orchids parade around the stage, as the carnival of youth invites us in with open arms.
But even from the exuberant opening, as if Play School had drunk a bottle of Angostura Gold and exploded on stage, there is the cruel edge of racism present in the narrative.
Bold colours and sounds wash over the audience, those young or free enough clap along, but onstage the lyrics are cut with snarled faces in trench coats demanding, “…your kind should go home.”
Floella’s family grows, with comical ‘deliveries’ from the stork, and we watch her siblings enjoying a loving home. Yet, the children fear corporal punishment at school, highlighted in a scene that scares some in the audience but generates a ripple of bittersweet nostalgia (and laughter) from others.
The narrative’s duality is soft and continuous, with the first half building to what we know will be a more uncomfortable second. Marmie and Dardie Benjamin burst the children’s bubble by heeding the colonial call to “make Britain great again” and Dardie expresses desires to “make money and music” in the burgeoning London jazz scene.
Dardie leaves for the UK first, with Marmie and the two youngest following a year later, as the remaining four children have a brutal 15 months with foster parents – touched upon by the quickly referenced actions of their faux aunties and uncles, but not overly dramatised. Again, this one’s for the children.
After a nearly 4,500 mile sea journey for the young Benjamins (and an interval break for the Rep audience) we watch the large Trinidadian family suffer the cold, cramped surroundings, and bigotry of their new white dominated world – moving from a one room London apartment to their first UK family home in Beckenham.
Jumping quickly across the years, arguably too quick for a life so varied and full of achievement, David Wood’s adaptation relies heavily on music and song – directed and superbly choreographed by Omar F Okai. The songs are thoroughly infectious, as you would hope from a musical, but ‘She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain’ is perhaps the most memorable and I won’t be singing that on the way home.
The story is short, simple, and full of inspirational messages for the younger audience, whilst thoroughly entertaining all ages in the room – from the children it is clearly aimed at, to the “Play School babies” who are secretly hoping for a cameo from Big Ted and Little Ted.
British hypocrisy and colonialism are somewhat side stepped in Coming to England; it is not my story to tell, but this felt like a missed opportunity to fill in the blanks left by a selected approach to classroom history. But the production is unflinching in the face of racism – presented both a confident and child-friendly manner.
The harsh reality and ultimate betray of the British Nationality Act 1948 are comically referenced towards the end of the second act, by a Goon Show/Mr Chumley Warner-esque World Service announcer (depending on your age and cultural reference points) who delivers stiff upper lip advice to the Caribbean community establishing themselves in Britain.
There are some clever touches that bring home the two lives lived by our central protagonist. The young Floella, played magnificently by Paula Kay, talks in a Caribbean accent, whilst the older/narrator Floella breaks the fourth wall in a straight British drawl.
The use of versatile sets and energetic dance routines fill the large stage well, with lighting and mobiles framing the scenes beautifully – although so much so, when it comes to the official carnival scene there is nowhere to go but straight ahead. And whilst the whole cast commit and excel with aplomb, with no weak links, Bree Smith’s performance of Marmie (and the evil ‘auntie’) also stands out.
A joyous and educational hour and a half, Coming to England does exactly what it sets out to do and does it wonderfully well – telling the story of a young, loving, patriotic family leaving their home in the British colony of Trinidad to live, work, and help rebuild the “mother country”, only to be met by racism and bigotry.
Floella Benjamin’s approach to the home soil hatred is to be lauded and listened to, told through a rich and accessible story that inspires you with both its innate kindness and the fantastic achievements of its narrator.
If you’re wanting a tough polemic on the failures of Atlee’s post war Britain to embrace integration from countries the Empire took by military force or financial mercenary… Coming to England is not for you.
But if you want nearly 90 minutes of carnival flavoured songs, dance, positive storytelling, and a narrative littered with encouragement and inspiration – one that will open the discussion on racism in a child appropriate tone – then I’d book a place at The Rep for you and yours immediately.
And whilst Coming to England is certainly aimed at a younger audience (the rum cocktails are optional) every age can learn something from Floella Benjamin’s life story – told with a litany of life affirming lines from start to finish.
“…and winners smile.”
Coming to England is presented as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival, a six-month celebration of creativity in the West Midlands surrounding the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Coming to England plays at The Rep until Sat 16 Apr. For tickets visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk or call 0121 236 4455.