Paterson Joseph's one-man act of remembrance brings us into the world of Sancho, the first Afro-British man to vote in an election. Daniel Perks watches his tale unfold:

Paterson Joseph prances around the stage with a mild lisp and foppish attitude as he tells the story, in character, of Charles Ignatius Sancho. It’s quite the historical recollection – born in slavery to parents who died shortly after his birth, he become the pet (read ward) of three female spinster sisters. Educated in secret by a Duke of Montagu, he moved up in the world of aristocracy to eventually own commercial property in Mayfair. It’s a significant final detail, as it qualifies Sancho to cast his vote in the general election, the first Afro-Britain to do so. Joseph’s play is certainly worthy of its title – Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance.

Sancho Wiltons Music Hall

Paterson Joseph (image courtesy of Robert Day)

But given the climactic ending, where Sancho stands proudly on a dais with his son, announcing his political support for Westminster’s anti-slavery candidate Charles James Fox, the remainder of the tale leaves us somewhat void. Buried within the material are key moments of importance and poignancy – the undercurrent of racism inherent in the 18th century; Joseph’s clever wordplay around the ‘dark subject’ of his portrait, painted by Thomas Gainsborough. But these nuggets are mostly coated with a coquettish, pantomime style of narration. It’s self-proclaimed self-indulgence, and for that we can forgive the tale of Sancho. But it aims so hard to please its audience that it negates to do justice to the more powerful pieces in his history.

Sancho Wiltons Music Hall

Paterson Joseph (image courtesy of Robert Day)

This may come across as more like a one-man chat show than a narrative recollection, but no one can deny Joseph’s ability to hold a crowd in the palm of his hand. He plays off audience reaction, invites members onto stage and actively draws everyone into the world he evocatively paints. There’s an element of Kenneth Williams in his mannerisms, a splash of Eric Morecambe in his knowing ‘looks to camera’. Every comment is a salacious secret, a titbit of gossip that binds the listeners to him in confidence. Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance exists mostly as a stream of consciousness, as Sancho poses for his portrait and muses to the masses.

The added skill in Joseph’s portrayal comes from his ability to subtly switch from pleasant platitudes into moments of earnest eloquence – he pleas with his audience, a glint of desperation in eye, to remember him. Sancho’s legacy must not be forgotten. And it won’t be, such is the intelligence with which Joseph narrates and the transportive nature by which he effortlessly slips between accents and characters.

Sancho Wiltons Music Hall

Paterson Joseph (image courtesy of Robert Day)

But for all Joseph strikes this balance, the piece itself is uneven, taking so long on Sancho’s upbringing that it reduces the pivotal moment to a fleeting epilogue. As such, Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance never quite feels enticing – the melancholic aspect to his personality never benefits from as full an exploration as does his happier, light-hearted attitude. Bittersweet remarks slowly work their way into the narrative towards its conclusion, but these come too little too late. By the time we change tack, we have reached the end – an ending that is beautifully constructed, but ill reflects the material that precedes it.

A one-man show that breaks down walls with its opening line, Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance is a fitting tribute to a fascinating, forgotten figure. It does him justice, but it can do more to elevate his importance. However, Joseph clearly cares for Sancho, and treats him with respect – surely that is the most important detail of all.

 

 

 

★★★☆☆

Sancho: An Act Of Remembrance runs at Wilton’s Music Hall until 16 June 2018. For further information, please visit the venue website.