SANCHO at Birmingham Rep Studio

Sancho

Paterson Joseph delivers a performance that is hard to fault in Sancho: An Act of Remembrance. He begins the show as himself, in plain garbs, introducing his audience to Ignatius Sancho. Joseph’s passion for the subject matter is evident and he sets the tone for what follows: warm, buoyant and didactic.

He is funny, too. Rarely does anyone (particularly in a one-man show) pull off audience interaction with such charm and humour as he does here. The rapport that he builds with the audience feels genuine and lays the groundwork for later emotional beats that he hits, making them all the more effective.

Beyond the name ringing a bygone school-days bell, my acquaintance with the biography and character of Sancho was nil. Thus, prior to the performance, the narrative served as a question mark.

The lack of awareness might be condemned, for the success of Sancho is under-recognised, not only as the first Black Briton to vote in an election, but throughout his life, wherein he netted “the extraordinary negro” as a nickname. Yet the feeling of experiencing education delivered in such a fine way — lively, vital, dynamic, etc. — is one of the pleasures of the show, really.

Obliviousness may amplify the joy of education, but its bedfellow, ignorance, rears its ugly head within the narrative to sometime devastating effect. Sancho was brought up in wealth, well cultured and voracious in his appetite for learning, but obstacles erected in reaction to his race are not glossed. The audience recognises the exceptional nature of Sancho’s situation, and how precarious this unique position might be, so there is an anxious undercurrent in much of the proceedings. Joseph does not allow the work to stray into priggish or prosaic oration, but intimates what it must have been like to be a black man in the eighteenth century.

The moment when Joseph appears to step out of character in the denouement (indeed, shifting through several performative iterations at times), is understated and arresting. The switch makes clear that the issues that this play circumscribes are reiterated today, in new, multifarious modes, and are important to remember.

Joseph is a chameleon. Every accent is spot on, bar the Irish. The show is a touch long and a little meandering in tone, but apart from that, flawless. ★★★★★     Will Amott    24/09/15