Shannon Hayes, Dawn Walton and Donna Berlin with afternoon tea

Royal-Tea: Comedy, class and culture in The Gift

Posted on 14 January 2020

In the court of Queen Victoria, there are many complex rules around class and social interaction, and West African-born princess Sarah Bonetta Davies is determined to get everything right. But will her efforts to be the “Queen of Etiquette” really help to change people’s perceptions about her, or will she always be treated differently by her peers?

Inspired by the true story of a girl “gifted” to Queen Victoria as a child, Janice Okoh’s sharp new comedy The Gift explores themes of race, class, culture and what it really means to be British – all things which feeling increasingly relevant in the light of recent news stories around cross-cultural adoption, national identity and even the challenges facing the royal family.

The story is set across two timelines – one in 1862, when a grown up Sarah Bonetta is preparing to return to Africa with her new husband; and one in the present day, where a middle-class black couple who have adopted a white child are having trouble with their nosy neighbours. In both parts, drinking tea, and all the customs and conventions that surround it, are a central part of the action – so in true “polite society” style, last week, we invited a few members of the local press to meet the cast and director, Dawn Walton, for afternoon tea at the theatre.

As part of their rehearsal process, the cast revealed that they’d received Victorian etiquette lessons from a specialist consultant.

Shannon Hayes with afternoon tea

“There are so many rules!” exclaimed Shannon Hayes, playing Sarah Bonetta in the show. “Things like walking with smaller steps rather than taking big strides, always being elegant, and the difference in hierarchy between posh people and slightly less posh people.

“But what we learned is that even though there are lots of rules, often they were broken. So there were conventions, but they weren’t always followed. It’s kind of a dance around who knows more of the rules and who’s going to apply them.”

“It’s almost like a scene from Blue Planet, watching animals doing a sort of courting ritual,” laughs Donna Berlin, who plays the modern-day Sarah character. “It’s a dance but with tea. And curtsies.”

For Victorian Sarah, following the rules meticulously is important: it feels like a way of asserting her right to be in a space where those around her still consider her an outsider or a strange curiosity. By learning and understanding the etiquette better than anyone around her, she attempts to challenge the assumptions made about her. But there’s a question over how much it really changes people’s perceptions.

Rebecca Charles and Donna Berlin with afternoon tea

“In the play I think Janice makes the case that sometimes class and culture are confused, and even class and race,” says Shannon. “We assume certain etiquettes and manners belong to a certain race more than the other. She does a lot in this play to reverse that, with me being an African princess who has been educated here and follows the etiquette better than everyone else in the room.”

“A lot of these things have never been said or touched on before,” adds Donna. “I can understand why, because it can be quite intimidating territory for a writer. But Janice has tackled it head on, beautifully and with a lot of comedy. She doesn’t pull any punches. You laugh at it and then you wince just a little bit. When I first read the script I got about halfway through Act One and I’d already had about five laugh out loud moments. It’s an absolute hoot!”

Co-produced by Eclipse Theatre and the Belgrade Theatre, The Gift shows premieres in Coventry from 18-25 January. Tickets are available to book now. You can find out more about our afternoon tea packages on our Food and Drink page.

Listen to our full podcast with Donna and Shannon below.

Photos by FiveSix Photography