The year is 1862 and Sarah Bonetta Davies (Shannon Hayes), an African girl adopted by Queen Victoria and raised within her circles, resides in Brighton on the eve of her return to Africa. The question: will she go?
Opening up on a picturesque scene of a pristine white apartment, two young women sit perched on the sofa in flowing ebony gowns, a tea set before them. Straight away, they looked like a painting from the Victorian era. The perfect picture soon became one of the funniest scenes of the play, with the maid, Aggie (Donna Berlin), learning how to be a hostess. With her exaggerated laugh and comments on the weather, Aggie took the lead as the comedian of the scene, much to the dismay of her teacher, Sarah. The back and forth between Hayes and Berlin was brilliant, having the audience laughing one moment and cringing for them as they muddled through the lesson the next.
The tone soon shifted, as visitors arrived with preconceived perceptions about Sarah, from overly familiar questions to casual racism. A particular credit to the play was how seamlessly it moved between comedy and the darker subjects.
Fast forward to present day and Sarah, a middle-class black woman has come to stay in a Cheshire village with her husband, James and young child, Victoria. Intertwining with the past, the modern day setting also looks at cross-racial adoption, but reversed with Sarah Bonetta Davies who was adopted by a white family, while modern Sarah and James have adopted a white child.
The modern day storyline immediately drops hints about the underlying mystery of the scene; why does James have a broken arm and cuts on his face?
A visit by supposedly well-meaning neighbours may have something to confess, but not before they have given their own opinions on race and political correctness. Much like the scene from 1852, the audience was almost crying with laughter at outrageous dance moves and uncomfortably listening to Ben (Richard Teverson) explain why he thinks modern Sarah’s opinions on how she feels about her own race are wrong the next.
The second half of the play leads to an almost surreal scene as both Sarahs have tea with Queen Victoria, though only Sarah Bonetta Davies can be seen by her majesty. Though it is not explained how modern Sarah has come to be in the scene, she encourages Sarah Davies to stand up to the Queen and confront the racist attitudes that have been placed upon her from childhood.
Throughout the play, The Gift explores topics of race, cross-racial adoption, imperialism, cultural appropriation and of course…tea. Every scene includes some kind of tea party and gave thought provoking glimpses into both a historical figure and fictional character’s lives. It gave an interesting insight into the prejudices that people had to deal with both in the past and today.
The Gift is an important play that should not be missed.
The Gift is currently on tour around the UK until Wednesday 11th March 2020. Look on eclipsetheatre.org.uk for further details.