This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
Charles Ignatius Sancho, the first known black man to vote in a British election, evidently led a remarkable life, if Paterson Joseph’s new one-man play is anything to go by. Conceived, written and performed by Joseph, Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance charts Sancho’s life from his birth on a slave ship bound for the West Indies in 1729, to his education as a servant in Georgian high-society, to that fateful day at the Westminster Parliamentary Elections of 1774.
It is, first and foremost, a captivating story expertly told by Joseph. First appearing as Sancho, the dandyish, cane-wielding, middle-aged gentleman posing for a Gainsborough portrait, Joseph is immediately engaging. He talks to the audience as to an interested stranger, all flashing smiles and half-mocking boasts. But shining through this winning exterior is a grit and an emotional depth that comes to the fore when, later on, Joseph ages twelve years in the changing of a waistcoat to become Sancho, the elderly grocer, hard-up but proud, determined to take his place in society.
Performing on a stark but flexible set of wooden crates, Joseph displays an entertaining physicality and an impressive vocal control throughout, from his seven-year-old servant nervously hiding beneath his bedsheets, to his doddering, gout-ridden shopkeeper. It is testament to Joseph’s versatility that he manages to cram a host of idiosyncratic supporting characters – drunken actors, formidable mistresses, fictional African princes and more – into a brisk seventy minutes yet maintain their individuality.
Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance is undoubtedly more than an entertaining tale, although entertainment is certainly high on the agenda; as Joseph himself admits, this is less a political play and more a chance for him to get the lead in a period drama. That said, there are still stereotypes to be pinpricked, misconceptions to be revealed and, whether Joseph intended it to or not, the piece has an undoubted contemporary relevance.
Frequent references to the abuse and societal racism that Sancho had to contend with on a daily basis are effective in drawing parallels between today’s immigration concerns and those of the 18th Century, when a different set of migrants were being forced to earn a place in British society. Sancho is a man with a lot going for him. He is erudite, charming, gracious and talented, but he is constantly facing doubters, constantly having to justify his unconventional success. As the audience come to know him better, they cannot help but ask why.
These themes are perhaps not as overt as they should be, however, so much so that towards the conclusion, there is a slight incongruity with what has gone before. Sancho’s determination to cast his vote, his determination to proudly participate, comes across as a little sudden, and the final minutes seem to drive home a message that has not been pre-empted in the preceding seventy.
In truth, this is but a minor quibble. Joseph’s consummate performance and his bringing to life of a particularly fascinating life are justification enough for the piece’s creation.