Coming to England review – Floella Benjamin story overlooks her ascent to Play School

It is fitting that an adaptation of Floella Benjamin’s memoir of her girlhood should encapsulate the spirit of children’s television. After all, it was Play School that made Benjamin a household name in the 1980s. This musical weaves misty-eyed flashbacks to that series – iconic lines, collective singing and clap-alongs – with a story of Britain’s Windrush-era racism from a child’s perspective.

But there is a great chunk of story that feels missing, for adults, at least. Adapted by David Wood and directed by Omar F Okai, the play circles around the early years but we never learn how Benjamin rose, so singularly, to become the face of children’s TV in an era of open racial hostility and little diversity on screen.

It is all the more disappointing because the show begins and ends in adulthood when Floella (Paula Kay), now Lady Benjamin of Beckenham, is awarded the Freedom of the City of London honour in 2018. This framing promises that the dots will be joined, but the story does not take in the full arc of Benjamin’s journey. We are simply told that she appeared on Play School for “12 happy years”, not how she got there or the hurdles she overcame.

Instead, the play revolves around early girlhood, first living with five siblings in Trinidad and then 15 months in foster care while her parents, Marmie (Bree Smith) and Dardie (Kojo Kamara) travelled to London to set up home for their children. Benjamin is raised on postwar mythologies of the mother country’s greatness, so she is shocked by the abject daily racism when she arrives in London aged 10. It is interesting to see Windrush-era experience from a child’s point of view, both in the “brainwashed” education Benjamin receives in Trinidad (British history is taught with no mention of slavery) and her alienation in England, not least her shock when she is told the family must live in one room. But this moment, along with others, feels brisk and undetailed, not nearly as powerful as the shock Hortense feels in a similar instance in the National Theatre’s revival of Small Island.

The drama lacks emotional depth and texture as a whole; Benjamin is told to go back home and often sees signs in windows stating: “No dogs, no Irish, no coloureds” but none of these moments are developed or feel specific enough, though they will doubtless educate a younger audience.

There is a lovely calypso vibe to some of the music and the cast have able singing voices but the choreography looks rudimentary and unremarkable. The songs are performed well enough but come to feel sleepy in energy, the actors often static as they sing, and they seem to be padding out the limited story; by the end of over two hours, Benjamin is still only at school, elaborating on school dinners, and the drama feels like it is dragging its feet.

Bretta Gerecke’s set design feels oddly empty too. A skeletal structure representing the family house in Trinidad is wheeled on and off stage. A back screen has swirls of changing colour which does not add to the story in a meaningful way and indistinct shapes hang in a mystifying mobile overhead: they could be rocks, molten clouds or pieces of coal.

Adult actors play Floella’s five young siblings and while Kay, as Floella, gives a winning performance, the others seem jarring and contrived in their parts, dressed in long shorts and frocks.

There is a transforming moment when Benjamin turns away from anger and embraces positivity in response to race hate, but this comes in a heavily message-bound ending. There are occasional invitations for audience participation – we sing “If you’re happy and you know it” and we stamp our feet. This brings fun for kids and nostalgia for adults but it is not enough to power the drama on. What is needed is greater pace, deeper emotion, more detail and much more story.

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