Pros: Highlights a forgotten figure of British history with originality and flair.
Cons: Some high-pitched audio feedback, and audience participation – though brief and fun – may put dread into the hearts of some ticket holders.
You probably haven’t heard of Charles ‘Sancho’ Ignatius, and I don’t blame you (though take a bonus point if you do know his name). His extraordinary story, which reads like the pages of a novel, is an extreme 18th century example of rags to riches. Born on a slave ship, he travelled with his master to Greenwich, at just three years old. Sancho became a pawn in London society’s game, but fought for education, self-expression and self-determination, at a time when slavery was still legal. Moving up to join the middle classes, he eventually became a business owner. Sancho was the first Afro-Britain given the vote, but he’s notable for other achievements, too.
This sounds like an overwhelming topic for a one-man show, but versatile actor Paterson Joseph nails his debut play and starring role, bringing out the nuanced character of Sancho, plus the various people he encounters. Joseph talks candidly about the process of bringing the play to life; this is its first London staging, following a warm reception in Oxford, Birmingham and on a US tour.
While there aren’t huge amounts of historical detail about Sancho, we do know he had a speech impediment and he would have had an upper-class British accent. Joseph maintains a slight lisp 99% of the time, and injects a little camp pomposity into his character, sipping a drink and salivating over syllabub like an 18th century Kenneth Williams. He also masters the many competing accents of other characters, such as Laurence Sterne.
Sancho, like Joseph, was a polymath, turning his hand to music, drama, serving as a butler and running his own business. Joseph injects zest into each of Sancho’s career stages as he zips across the sparse but effective set (designed by Michael Vale), occasionally accessorised with a copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s Sancho portrait. This painting is a way into the story, but also into exploring the many ways black people were portrayed in society, in portraiture and on the streets.
Joseph’s script is full of vivid descriptions, with Sancho describing his letter writing in relation to his identity as “a living newspaper, black and bold”. He speaks of “our endless labour of proof” that sees black British citizens constantly distrusted and demeaned; it’s true of the 18th century, but painfully accurate in the light of 2018’s Windrush scandal, and the hate mail messages received by MP David Lammy. The passion of the script is reflected in the sheer determination and physical exertion etched on Joseph’s face – clad in 18th century costume, sweat dripping down under stage lighting, at times you feel he might burst with energy. The occasional squeak of audio feedback, whilst unintentional, somehow adds to the mood.
A dance interlude, complete with nervous audience participation, is a little awkward, but Joseph recovers this by referring back to the audience member – often addressing her directly – several times afterwards. “Yes, Kate,” he says sincerely, after recalling a juicy anecdote. It’s a simple technique, but it tickles the rest of the audience.
Sancho: An Act of Remembrance, demands your attention and, most importantly, it delivers a memorable portrait of this remarkable man. Charles ‘Sancho’ Ignatius mattered then, and he matters now.
Author: Paterson Joseph
Directors: Paterson Joseph, Simon Godwin
Producers: Pemberley Productions, Oxford Playhouse
Booking Until: 16 June 2018
Box Office: 020 7702 2789
Booking Link: https://www.wiltons.org.uk/whatson/420-sancho-an-act-of-remembrance