The Gift review – clever and complex vision of black Britons, then and now


The historian David Olusoga has spoken of black Britons across the centuries whose stories have been forgotten, untold or “hidden in plain view”. Sarah Bonetta Davies is one of them. A 19th-century Yoruba princess, she was orphaned and enslaved before becoming the goddaughter of Queen Victoria and living in Brighton.

This co-production by Eclipse Theatre and the Belgrade is part of an initiative to deliver new black British stories. One of the achievements of Janice Okoh’s clever and complex script is that it is not a straightforward retelling of Davies’s life. The Gift offers a formally original and intellectual engagement with forgotten history, cross-racial adoption and the impact of imperialism on black British lives today.

The play travels from the Victorian era – featuring Queen Victoria herself – to the present and back again, with time frames colliding at times. Actors double up as characters in both worlds to expose how little has changed in attitudes around black Britishness between now and then. Davies (Shannon Hayes) is realised as an urbane woman contending with house guests who speak of African “natives” and open bigotry from neighbours.



Still dealing with the same problems … Donna Berlin and Rebecca Charles in The Gift. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz

In the present, Sarah (Donna Berlin), is an accomplished, middle-class woman from Chelsea who has moved to Cheshire with her university professor husband. She is met by the same barely veiled racism from neighbours. Both women encapsulate the enduring paradox within their British identities: they look, sound and feel British but are not accepted as such by the white world around them.

There are huge strengths to Dawn Walton’s production, from the striking symbolism of Simon Kenny’s stage design – Davies and her maid wear black Victorian dresses set against a pure white room – to the drawing-room satire. These scenes are full of sharp, stinging dialogue but they come to feel prolonged and too static, with the arguments around race not entirely digested into the drama.

The Gift is filled to the brim with great writing and good performances. But there are so many ideas that it feels too much for a single play.



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