Recognition at last: Coleridge-Taylor gets placed centre stage

Recognition: For once, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor gets centre stage, in Talawa’s new play at the Fairfield Halls, where Paul Adeyefa gives a measured performance. Pic: Gifty Dzenyo

The people behind Croydon’s Borough of Culture did not invite Inside Croydon to the press night for the prestigious new production at the Fairfield Halls. KEN TOWL got in anyway

At last, we can see where some of the Mayor of London’s/Londoners’/our Borough of Culture money is being spent.

Recognition (or “In Recognition” according to the This Is Croydon Borough of Culture website) is a lavish production, the likes of which we have not seen from the Talawa Theatre Company since it took up residency at the Fairfield Halls.

Lavish, yes, and bold, with original music to complement that of its subject, the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, sophisticated visual effects, a sextet of professional musicians and a cast of seven very talented actors.

Money has been spent. But you don’t recoup all this with the ticket sales alone. Talawa’s studio was set up for about 150 audience members on three sides of a square and, on press night on Monday, was about 80per cent full. Including Croydon Mayor Jason Perry, disguised as a Mitcham Belle coach driver, sitting in a row of seats all to himself.

The book of the play: Faber & Faber’s ‘programme’

Given that tickets are £9.50 for anyone who can show they have a CRO postcode (did Mayor Perry claim his discount?), they are not going to take much more than a grand a night during their three-week run. Then there’s the director, composer, assistant choreographer and a dozen more creatives listed in the programme, all needing to put food on the table.

Did I say “programme”? It’s more of a paperback book, actually published by Faber and Faber, that starts with a biography of the cast and musicians. There is a little bit of branding on the back for Faber, Talawa and the gnomic This Is Croydon, while the Mayor of London, Croydon Council and the Arts Council get their logo recognition, just slightly smaller. So yes, there is money behind this.

I am glad there is. On one hand, former Croydon resident Samuel Coleridge-Taylor deserves the recognition that Recognition avails him. On the other, this dynamic production deserves to be seen.

More, however, than just a paean to a great “lost” English composer, it is also, perhaps inevitably, a highly polemical work. Song, the only person of colour on her prestigious classical music course, struggles to be taken seriously in the face of all the usual micro-aggressions, “Can you grab me some coke this weekend?”, a fellow student asks her.

It is assumed that any talent she has is instinctive rather than intellectual, that she must like jazz because, well you know…

The micro-aggressions that Song suffers reflect the discrimination that marred the career more than a century earlier of her hero, Coleridge-Taylor.

One of England’s greatest composers, he died penniless in 1912. We hear how he was conned into selling the rights to his masterpiece Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast for 15 Guineas, see how his talent is treated with incredulity and how he is labelled “The Black Mahler”, as if the pigmentation of his skin is incompatible with his genius.

The alternating scenes from the past and the present point up the continuing barriers to success that are endemic to any society that attributes stereotypical characteristics to different ethnicities. They also drive the production along, keeping both audience and performers on their toes.

Strong and assertive: Kibong Tanji as Song, seeking Recognition. Pic: Gifty Dzenyo 

The two leads, drawn together by their common struggle for recognition, provide a contrast in terms of style. While Song (played by Kibong Tanji) is assertive and emotional, Samuel (Paul Adeyefa), constrained by the society that will not quite accept him, knows that he must be calm in the face of all the man-made trials that he undergoes. He is aware that he will be judged a “barbarian” if he emotes as much as those around him.

While Song feels she has to try twice as hard to succeed, Samuel must be twice as quiet.

Tanji brings a tour-de-force ball-of-energy performance to her demanding role, while  Adeyefa adeptly plays Coleridge-Taylor as a tightly-wound coil, a man constantly on the edge, both psychologically and socially.

They are ably supported by Alice Stokoe, Matthew Romain and Barnaby Power, who play a compendium of roles, allies and antagonists. They create the opportunities for both of the protagonists to show rather than tell us all of the injustices that they constantly face.

Indeed, it is with the interplay between the characters and the fast-paced dialogue that co-writers Amanda Wilkin and director Rachael Nanyonjo come into their own.

There are occasions, however, during the soliloquies when the pace flags and there is more telling than showing. This is particularly risky with such a polemical play. We do not need to be told constantly how unfair life is and what a genius Coleridge-Taylor was, when we can hear that for ourselves through his music.

Coach driver: Mayor Jason Perry got a row all to himself… Pic: Dannie Liebovitz

There are opportunities to hear the music, too, interspersed seamlessly by musical director Rio Kai with the contributions of composer Cassie Kinoshi. They ensure that Coleridge-Taylor’s genius soars over this production

Deborah Tracey and David Monteith, who bring great presence and a palpable warmth to the roles of Song’s parents, add depth to the play, rounding out some of the sharper political points with comedy and, in the case of Tracey, a powerful and quite beautiful singing voice.

The reception was rapturous – a standing ovation, and deservedly so. At its best, Recognition is a powerful production, a real collaboration of creatives, whether writers, actors, musicians, visual artists or technicians. If at times it felt as if we were being “schooled”, for most of it we empathised with the protagonists and rooted for them and felt righteous anger at the injustices they faced.

I missed seeing whether Mayor Perry was on his feet at the end, and I had no way to tell how much he empathised with Recognition’s message. I hope that he would agree that here, at least, taxpayers’ money has been well-spent.

You can’t book anything through the useless This is Croydon website, but you can book tickets here:

Hurry, though: Recognition runs at the Fairfield Halls only until June 24. It may yet prove to be one of the few, original highlights of Croydon’s year of the Borough of Culture.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
This entry was posted in Art, Borough of Culture 2023, Fairfield Halls, Ken Towl, Mayor Jason Perry, Music, Talawa Theatre Company, Theatre and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Recognition at last: Coleridge-Taylor gets placed centre stage

  1. chris myers says:

    Great. But I take issue with the ‘recognition at last’ line – this talented guy’s face is all over Croydon. He’s had masses of recognition in my lifetime – he deserved it.

  2. David White says:

    Ken Towl has written an excellent review of a first-rate production. I saw it on the last night of its current run, on Saturday. The play is so good that hopefully it will be put on again in the future, at the Fairfield or perhaps other venues.

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