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Afternoon tea with the cast of The Gift

The Gift is based on the true story of an African princess adopted by Queen Victoria. Muddy was invited to meet the cast over afternoon tea at Coventry's Belgrade Theatre - and we don’t need any encouragement to scoff a scone or two!

Afternoon Tea with the cast of ‘The Gift’ at the Belgrade Theatre from l-r: Shannon Hayes, who plays Sarah Bonetta Davies, director Dawn Walton and Donna Berlin, plays Aggie and contemporary Sarah. Photos by Joe Bailey on behalf of Belgrade Theatre, Coventry., fivesixphotography.

Zaris-Angel Hator made a brief appearance in a screen version of Sarah Bonetta Davies in ITV’s recent series Victoria, but the true story of this orphaned African princess, adopted by Queen Victoria, isn’t widely known.

Award-wining Janice Okoh’s  new comedy drama, The Gift, seeks to address this in an exploration of imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation…and tea. It makes its premiere at The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, this week (until Sat Jan 25) before touring the UK.

Dawn Walton, Artistic Director of black-led national production company Eclipse is helping to dramatise the “missing stories of black British history” over 500 years. Addressing a table of journalists and bloggers at the Belgrade, she tells how she started the Revolution Mix movement in 2010, gathering a team of 15 writers – one of whom was Janice Okoh.

Dawn Walton,Director of Eclipse’s The Gift

After Black Men Walking (nominated for the UK Theatre Awards’ Best New Play and Writer’s Guild Awards’ Best Play 2019) and 2019’s critically-acclaimed Princess and the Hustler, Eclipse’s third touring productions, is The Gift. This new three-act play fuses Victorian costume drama and present day, opening in Brighton, 1862, on the eve of 18-year-old Sarah Bonetta Davies having to return to Africa.

Donna-Berlin-Shannon-Hayes-and-Joanna-Brookes. Photo credit Ellie Kurttz


The real-life historic narrative is juxtaposed with the story of another Sarah – a contemporary black middle-class woman living with her husband and small child in a Cheshire village. They are paid a visit by well-meaning neighbours who have something to confess…The two Sarah’s timelines coincide meet Queen Victoria for tea – but this won’t be your regular tea party…

We too break off for our own tea party with the cast, after Dawn’s introduction to the play.

I meet London-based actors Donna Berlin, and Rebecca Charles (below) each playing two different parts.

Actors Rebecca Charles (left) and Donna Berlin (right)

Donna plays modern Sarah and Aggie, originally a housemaid in the former African princess’ Victorian household.

She was aware of the story of Sarah Bonetta Davies growing up. “My parents were really good. My brother and I knew our black history. My mum was always in the library; she was very forward-thinking,” said Donna. “It’s a wonderful story and captures everyone imagination.

“Our production is a period drama…with black people! I’ve never been cast in a period play before and to be in this one is lovely.”

Last year Donna was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the Broadway World Regional Awards 2019 for her role in Eclipse’s Princess and the Hustler at Bristol Old Vic. Chinonyerem Odimba’s beautifully crafted play, also directed by Dawn, was set in 1963 Bristol, as civil rights activists take to the streets against the refusal of the bus company to employ black or Asian bus crews in the city.

Donna said: “It was a play about the Bristol bus boycott which a lot of people from the city were unaware of. Many people originally involved in the boycott came to the theatre and said how wonderful it was to have a play about them, their mothers and civil rights It was lovely. My character Mavis was everyone’s strong immigrant mother, abandoned by her husband. It was one of my best parts. I know this woman and I claimed it – I’m not gonna lie!”

Mother-of-two Rebecca plays Mrs Schoen – Sarah Bonetta Davies’ foster mother – and Harriet, one of contemporary Sarah’s Cheshire neighbours. She said:“Because the play gets quite deep, I think Janice has dealt with it in a brilliantly using humour. It’s very funny – and there’s a lot of very inappropriate humour!”

Acting appears to be in the blood in Rebecca’s household! Her husband Bob Barrett plays Dr Sacha Levy in BBC 1 medical drama, Holby City. He’s currently joined by the couple’s daughter, Francesca, in the TV series. Younger daughter Eleanor also hopes to join the profession. Rebecca’s own acting career started in Stratford-upon-Avon – as a 16-year-old she moved from Colwyn Bay in North Wales to study drama at the college and has fond memories of seeing the likes of Zoe Wanamaker and Antony Sher at the RSC “Now I think how brave my parents were,” she said.

Award-winning playwright Janice, won a Channel 4 play-writing bursary for her first play, Egusi Soup; and her second play, Three Birds, was the winner of the 2011 Bruntwood Prize, the UK’s biggest national competition for new writing.

On her inspiration she said: “I first heard the story of Sarah Bonetta Davies when I was at primary school, but for many years I wasn’t sure if it was actually true or not. As part of my research, I read personal diaries and journals kept by Queen Victoria and got a real insight into their incredible relationship.

“The theme of cross-racial adoption is a difficult subject to tackle, but the comedic elements of the play allow me to do this in a way that is playful, as well as thought-provoking. I also felt it was important to bring part of the story into the present day, as these are issues that are still relevant now.”

The Gift opened at The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, on Saturday Jan 18 and runs until Sat Jan 25 before embarking on a UK tour, belgrade, Tel: 024 7655 3055.

*Full Afternoon Tea is available from £17.50 for two or £25 including Prosecco. For something a bit different how about a South Asian inspired Afternoon Chai for £19.50, also for two.

The full 2020 tour dates for The Gift include:

Theatre Royal Stratford East, London: Wed 29 Jan – Sat 15 Feb
The North Wall, Oxford: Friday 21 – Sat 22 Feb
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds: Thur 27 – Sat 29 Feb
NST City, Southampton: Tues 3 – Sat 7 Mar
Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough: Tue 10 – Wed 11 Mar

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