BWW Review: THE GIFT, Theatre Royal Stratford East
How do you see yourself? What seems like a fairly straightforward question can actually be far more complex than you might think - and if your own lived experience deviates even slightly from what other people expect, you may find yourself repeatedly fielding the same queries as both sides seek to justify their positions.
In Janice Okoh's new play, The Gift, Princess Sarah Bonetta tries to balance her new role as wife with her passion for teaching, whilst modern-day structural engineer Sarah fends off a try-hard neighbour. Tea with Queen Victoria could be exactly what they both need...
Dawn Walton's production comes to Theatre Royal Stratford East following an engagement at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre, and will continue to tour around the country over the next few weeks. What begins as something of a gentle comedy of manners, with Queen Victoria's goddaughter Sarah Bonetta teaching her maid Aggie how to take tea and later being subjected to the interest of a woman claiming tenuous familial connections, develops into something with the potential to be quite sinister.
The second act shows more out-and-out comedy to begin with, as the nervous long-term residents (Harriet and Ben) try to ingratiate themselves with the new arrivals; though both appear well-meaning at first, it's clear something is being left unsaid by both sides. Harriet's excruciating attempts to avoid offending not only feel like she's overcompensating, but ultimately cause exactly the offence she was seeking to avoid - and though her husband at first appears more laidback and reasonable, his defensiveness becomes rather insidious and gets inside Sarah's head. An earlier conversation about Princess Sarah is what then leads her to wonder if Queen Victoria herself is at the root of these issues.
If you weren't aware of it before, the change in the political landscape over the past three to four years has really highlighted the extent to which a colonialist attitude remains embedded in the minds of many British people; whether it's expecting a say in EU matters once our membership expires, or the inability to engage with local languages or culture when venturing abroad. This idea runs deep in The Gift, and is reinforced by a narration of a section of Robinson Crusoe being played as the stage is reset for act two, where Friday is groomed to Crusoe's specifications.
The production links well with the recently closed Fairview in its interrogation of race and stereotypes, as well as in style; acts one and two aren't identical in this case, though they follow similar trajectories, and the final act seeks explanations whilst exposing the issues at hand. Another good companion show would be Inua Ellams' reimagining of Three Sisters that is currently running at The National Theatre. All provoke, question, entertain, and seek a new way forward.
Shannon Hayes and Donna Berlin are at the heart of the show as the two Sarahs. Hayes portrays a composed princess, trained in English manners and customs but clearly longing to make some decisions for herself; her inner frustrations are vocalised by modern-day Sarah in the final act, where the build-up of pressure finally grants her some freedom. Berlin is a scene-stealer as the hilariously nervy maid Aggie, before a complete transformation into confident and well-informed Sarah for the remainder of the play.
It's a challenging watch at times, and drifts a little during the first act, but is definitely an important production that is unafraid to tackle important and complex issues. The fact that it manages to remain engaging and enjoyable at the same time makes it a must-see piece of theatre.
Picture credit: Ellie Kurttz