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Criterion Theatre, Coventry, review: The Gift


By CHRIS ARNOT

The Gift, Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, Coventry, Feb 15 and 19.

To begin at the beginning . . . some of us needed to, having only seen Act Two so far thanks to a rude intrusion by Covid.

For Act One we’re going back to 1862. British Imperialism is rampant. So are the attitudes that it spawned. They’re voiced by Mrs Harriet Waller once she has recovered her breath after the long, steep walk from the station in the company of a somewhat pompous Reverend Venn.

Having seen off the first of many cups of tea (“not too sweet, thank you; just four sugars”) Mrs Waller also recovers her hauteur enough to start proclaiming about African “savagery” and “cannibalism”. Never mind that her hosts are a posh black couple called Davies.

James Davies has recently married Sarah Bonetta, an orphaned African princess adopted by Queen Victoria and raised as a lady by her guardian. Mrs Schoen is present during this sometimes excruciatingly amusing opening scene, overseeing the flow of tea into fine china and the distribution of scones galore by the hapless servant Aggie.

Yes, she’s from the lower orders, but class is not the main issue in this play. Racism is. How it has changed. And how it hasn’t.

Fast forward 120 years to the present day for Act Two. We’re at the home of Sarah and James who’ve recently moved from Chelsea to Cheshire. She’s a successful engineer; he’s a university lecturer and dealer in second-hand books. Both are black. But resting on one of the book cases lined with leather bound tomes is a photograph of their adopted daughter. Called Victoria, as it happens. It also happens that she’s white.

“We feel white,” Sarah says at one point during another excruciating conversation with new neighbours Harriet and Ben who’ve called round with lemon drizzle cake and gluten-free muffins. Both made by Harriet who is desperately keen to appear politically correct.

Again it’s funny, in parts. As neighbourliness begins to unravel, it becomes evident why James has his arm in a sling and a plaster on his forehead. It also becomes obvious that Sarah is becoming more troubled.

Soon after the awkward exit of the neighbours, she has stripped down to bra and pants to follow them through the front door.

She reappears in a surreal last act, stylishly clad and sitting on a sofa with the other Sarah. Yes, Victorian Sarah Bonetta and, yes, Queen Victoria is there too. For a while at least. History is about to be rewritten.

It seemed a quite a while since our last visit to the century before last, enlivened by two fine cameo performances by Lillian McGrath as Mrs Waller and Andrew Tryer as the Rev Venn.

Maxveal Mclaren proved exceptionally smooth as James Davies in the 19th century and the other James in the 21st, and Anne-marie Greene captured memorably Harriet’s decline from gushing supplier of gluten-free muffins to not-so-good neighbour.

This was a play that provoked much bar-side discussion during two intervals and indeed after the final curtain.


Barbara Goulden adds:

Against a backdrop of tea-drinking, The Gift examines what it means to be black and British against a backdrop of white privilege. If that all sounds a bit heavy well, perhaps it is, in parts.

It's angry too.

But for all that, playwright Janice Okoh's modern mickey-take of political correctness in Act 2 is by far the funniest thing I've seen in a long time. Nyasha Daley was a force to be reckoned with while lucky Anne-marie Greene gets most of the best lines....and she makes every one of them pay.


Jan Malatesta adds:

Different times, different tones, different genres! Brave of the Criterion to take this on and with such success, due to actors playing their parts exquisitely showing the culture of the time and today, how political correctness has gone mad! I laughed so hard during the second act, a real tonic, with the third act sending a strong message.


For tickets go to: https://www.criteriontheatre.co.uk/