Paula as Floella

Paula Kay as Floella. Pictures: Geraint Lewis

Coming to England

Birmingham Rep


I am a couple of years older than Floella Benjamin, author of the book which is the basis of the play. We had similar happy early childhoods, that is until her parents moved to England leaving her behind. She joined them when she was 11 . . . and it all changed.

We may be a similar age, but among the warnings of no dogs, no Irish and no blacks in boarding house windows and on corner shop notice boards, I never once saw no Lancastrians or no Northerners.

 I was never ignored by shop assistants as if I didn’t exist and the only time I was ever told to get back to where I came from was when the hospital in Oldham telephoned me to tell me my father was dying.

The reason was oh so simple, I was white, seen as being “proper” English, that, and that alone, was the real difference between the lives of the likes of me and the now Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham.

Her 1997 memoir, Coming to England, about moving from Trinidad, was published in 1997 and has become a school standard of modern social history. We can see ourselves as all inclusive, as treating people as we find them, but we have never suffered the abuse and prejudice inflicted on Floella, her family and thousands of other families, many from the Commonwealth, who saw themselves as not only their own nationality, in her case, Trinidadians, but also as British, coming to the mother country.

We can feel for them but we can never feel the depth of anger, fury, fear and pain that they felt, and, sadly all too often still feel now.

The dramatisation of her memoir by David Wood, opens up the debate. It is one we must have, a debate about our past and our joint history, and this world premiere production manages to tell her story but in an often joyous way.

Paula Kay is a wonderful Floella with a winning smile and a lovely voice, her singing of Smile was a real highlight among some great musical numbers sung with admirable enthusiasm by an energetic cast.


Happy family in Trinidad with the cast of the Bengamin clan, Kojo Kamara, Bree Smith, Nesah Gonzales, Jay Marsh, Tarik Frimpong, Paula Kay, Dale Mathurin, Yazmin Belo

Tarik Frimpong as youngest brother Roy is an aerobics session all on his own, full of smiles and with enough energy to power a small town.

Hovering around the Benjamin family are Conner Ewing, who does a nice line in racists, announcers, schoolboys and ship’s captains and Caitlin Drake, who racks up teachers, objectionable neighbours and ship’s crew.

Back in Trinidad, Kojo Kamara as the patriarch Dardie, respected policeman and aspiring jazz saxophonist, is the instigator of the move to a better life, a pioneer of the Windrush generation, setting off on the rather hopeful promises which split families apart.

He left for England with his wife, Marmie, played by Bree Smith who carries us through all the emotions of motherhood, taking with them their two youngest, Roy and Cynthia, played by Nesah Gonzales. It was all they could afford. The rest were to follow when finances allowed.

The rest of their children, four of them, were left behind with foster families, Floella and Sandra, Yazmin Belo, with Aunty, not a real Auntie, who saw the two youngsters as servants to be worked from dawn to dusk nnd keeping any cash, letters and parcels sent for them from England.

While Lester, Dale Mathurin and Ellington, Jay Marsh, found themselves with a foster parent who set them against each other in cruel games for food.

When they were called to join their parents in England it was a journey to the promised land, but the promise was . . . let’s just say, disappointing. The streets paved with gold? Well, they were paved at least and that was it. It was cold, wet, the Caribbean sun left far behind and the family of eight were living in one room with neighbours who resented both them and any noise.

Floella found resentment everywhere; at school there was resentment among classmates and even teachers for being better educated, too clever, she was treated differently in every way. In shops anyone was served before them, people were aggressive and nasty in the street, the police were even called to report a break-in when the family viewed a house they were looking to buy.Some neighbours moved out when they moved in.

Prejudice and racism was open, even tolerated to some extent, and for black people especially, was the norm. It hasn’t gone away, the xenophobic battalions on the Brexit battleground illustrated that, but there is a sea change. Watch any school gate at home time, children walking home, I see them pass my house, black and white together, no segregation, just mates and friends.

Floella wants people to see the person, not the colour. We are not there yet but we are heading in the right direction and plays like this help point the way.

It doesn’t preach or lecture, it just tells it as it was in the life of someone who was a pioneer in her own way. She was a black actress in the West End, became a long running presenter on Play School, appeared in films and TV plays and was Chancellor of the University of Exeter for 10 years. Her statue outside the Guild of Students there is the first public statue of a named black woman in the UK.

She appeared at the Premiere Press night to the delight of the audience, with as much enthusiasm as the cast for a play she and Keith Taylor, her husband of 52 years, are producing. It is not just her story but that of so many others along with the many other just causes that she has and continues to fight for and champion.

Directed and choreographed by Omar F Okai, the sheer enthusiasm and joyous moments carry it along aided by some imaginative setting from clouds to giant humming birds from Bretta Gerecke. It might be a play about Floella's life and her past but its message is one of hope for the future To 16-04-22.

Roger Clarke


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