'Coming to England': Paulette Hamilton reviews an uplifting musical depiction of Baroness Benjamin’s life story
Paula Kay plays the young Floella | photo by Geraint Lewis
An important and thought-provoking production, this engaging musical charting Baroness Benjamin’s childhood experiences, after emigrating from Trinidad to England in the 60s, resonated for both me and many members of the audience
Seeing Coming to England at the Birmingham Rep turned out to be an excellent thought-provoking night. The production tells the story of Baroness (Floella) Benjamin’s life in Trinidad and journey to England during the Windrush era. One of six children, Floella was born in 1949, later travelling to Beckenham in England in 1960 with her three siblings. The first half of this lovely musical concentrates on her early life in Trinidad, showing how the children’s whole life was torn apart when their parents announced that they were making the trip to England.
Dad left the island first, to make the trip to the “motherland” to pursue his dreams for himself and his family. Then after a year mom left to make the trip to England with the two youngest children.
Floella and the other children followed later but endured severe hardship with foster parents who used to beat them, used them as servants, and at times made them go to bed hungry. They were delighted when their mother and father decided to pay for them to travel to the UK. They travelled alone, but made an adventure of the trip. These were experiences Floella would draw on in her later life.
A very engaging production, the musical uses song to tell Floella’s story, with many known to the audience, who sang along with the cast – actually getting up to dance at different points of the play – so we even had audience participation.
Coming to England was different to anything I had seen before. Ten people made the whole musical come to life. The set was light and airy, and the costumes were very simple, but absolutely bought you back to the 50s and 60s. And you felt you were in the Caribbean, but also felt the differences when the script moved to the UK in the second half. The production became darker at this point with the undertones of racism. The set had housing which showed lighting inside, instead of the lovely sunny weather outside. The cast did a fantastic job of drawing the audience into the rain and cold, which added another dimension to the musical – simple but very effective.
The script took the audience on a journey from the Caribbean which was well done. Many parts of the story took me back to things my parents would say, and while at times the script was funny it just as quickly made you feel sad, because of a statement that was made or negative actions faced by the family.
It is important that people understand the journey of the Caribbean community to this country
I enjoyed the performances from the cast – Paula Kay, who plays Floella, did a great job. The musical was captivating and colourful– and I liked the little sayings in the face of adversity which kept Floella focused and able to avoid resorting to fighting when she faced racism. The two hours went very quickly. I would highly recommend this production to both young people and older generations alike.
It is important that people understand the journey of the Caribbean community to this country. I am first generation British, growing-up in England. It is vital that we understand our history – and others understand what people from the Caribbean community experienced. Many people of my generation have never been back to the Caribbean, so this type of play helps us to understand the journey taken by our parents and grandparents.
Our parents and grandparents believed they were coming to the motherland to help build England after the war, but the racism, isolation and change of culture meant they had to make many sacrifices to support the country. They faced a great deal of adversity, but the strength and tenacity of that generation is truly inspiring. Floella has helped to bring that story to life. Her journey from the Caribbean to a beloved children’s TV presenter on BBC’s Play School to becoming a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords is an inspiration to all. Many people say, “If Floella can do it, so can I”: if you can see it, you can believe it is possible.
Floella overcame the worse form of racism: that of ignorance. Now that Coming to England has finished its short run at the Birmingham Rep, it would be an absolute travesty if this play was not toured around the country, so other communities can experience this uplifting musical.
Paulette Hamilton is Labour MP for Birmingham Erdington
"Coming to England"
Written by: Floella Benjamin & adapted by David Wood
Director and choreographer: Omar Okai
Theatre: Birmingham Rep
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