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Coming to England review – Floella Benjamin's cherished novel is a musical message of positivity

David Wood adapts the text for the Birmingham Rep

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

© Geraint Lewis

Premiering at Birmingham Rep, this family musical is based on the book Coming to England by former Play School and Play Away presenter Floella Benjamin.

Now Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham, Floella came to England as a child, travelling with three siblings on a two-week sea crossing from Trinidad. Brought up to believe England was the Mother Country, Floella and her family soon discovered the welcome was less than friendly.

Adapted by David Wood, the tale begins with an adult Floella receiving the Honorary Freedom of the City of London. Here is a woman recognised and respected but, she warns the audience, it wasn't always so.

The story jumps back and forth in time with the Floella character also switching between playing her role and stepping to the front of the stage to speak to the audience. Paula Kay is a wonderful Floella, blending wide-eyed curiosity and enthusiasm with disillusion and anger.

Her mother, played by Bree Smith, is a pillar of strength – everyone needs a mum like this. She smiles through the hard times and encourages all of the family. Believing they will succeed, she instils this faith in her children – they must study and work and they will overcome.

There is an innocence to the story as Floella conjures up an idyllic childhood in Trinidad, a country of sun and colour where the land is plentiful, children play endless games and the community comes together for carnival.

Bretta Gerecke's set and lighting designs take us from this magical world of Trinidad where the stage is filled with giant glow-in-the-dark flowers and butterflies to a dingy brown one-room apartment in London. The contrast could not be more stark.

The story is not all humour and light. It does not shy away from the racism which blighted Floella's life when she moved to England – some of which is plain nasty with playground bullies and neighbours who accuse Floella's family of being burglars when in fact they have come to view a house they are planning to buy. And some of it is strangely and uncomfortably well-meaning such as the advice for West Indians to ignore offensive language because it isn't meant in an offensive manner.

Aimed at families, the show blends laughter, music and song with serious messages which are very timely with the current spotlight on Black Lives Matter. Here is a young girl who comes to England expecting to be accepted just as any other child would be, and yet discovers she is defined by the colour of her skin.

Directed and choreographed by Omar F Okai, there is however a sense that the show isn't quite sure what it wants to be. Juxtaposing humour with harsh reality is the backbone of theatre and yet the sudden changes in tone here from Play School singsongs to racist language sometimes feel too disparate. Are we in a fun-filled family musical or a gritty drama of childhood disillusion?

By its close, the decision is made as the message of positivity – smile at your enemies and you win – is underlined as the childhood Floella steps into the limelight and begins her career in entertainment. An affirmation that, despite the difficulties, children can win through.