The Gift at Theatre Royal Stratford East
Janice Okoh’s intriguing new play takes inspiration from the story of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an orphaned Yoruba princess from Nigeria adopted and raised by Queen Victoria. The play opens with two ladies in black Victorian dress, sitting on a plush white settee. Sarah (Shannon Hayes) is teaching her maid Agatha (Donna Berlin) the arcane vagaries of the etiquette of serving and hosting tea. Agatha is a mass of nerves, a Croydon Eliza Doolittle. It is classic farce and Berlin is a charismatic performer who provokes great hilarity.
The Victorian costumes are sumptuous. Joanna Brookes’s Harriet Waller is an apparition in headachey violet, curled hat feathers quivering with self-appointed airs. She is a con woman, her bluster disguising the fact that she pockets teaspoons on the sly.
In the second scene, the action moves forward to the present day and a black couple with an adopted white daughter settling in after a move to Cheshire. Neighbours Harriet and Ben drop by with some unsolicited gluten-free muffins. Ben peppers every remark with “mate”, both over-familiar and distancing. Harriet trips over herself not to be racist, which somehow culminates in some berserk twerking, a surreal scene of delusional dancing that is sort of genius and made the audience roar with laughter.
The script skewers Victorian attitudes (which may or not still prevail in some, it suggests) deftly. It delivers its message with humour and then with a stark punch. At the end of the first act, what has been ostensibly a comedy of manners and a farce slips into something darker and more eerie. Berlin strips naked and walks through wonky portals – whether back in time or into madness is not entirely clear. A hallucinatory tea with Queen Victoria is set in a pristine white set, with all three women in black dresses and a blood-red bell pull which symbolises blood at the denouement. It is a striking use of colour.
Some of the plot is confusing and mysterious. It is not clear if this is deliberate, but in any case it does not detract from the whole, which is a piece in turns uncomfortable, hilarious, bewildering and thought-provoking. It is clearly produced with devotion from the cast and crew, directed with passion by Dawn Walton (among the audience, a subversive vision in leopard print and curly Mohawk) and is well worth seeing for the yarn it spins, both anchored in reality and visionary in its appeal to shed outdated attitudes.
Photo: Ellie Kurttz
The Gift is at Theatre Royal Stratford East from 29th January until 15th February 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.