Note: I saw this play last year during its run at Wilton’s Music Hall, but mislaid my notes shortly afterwards during a catastrophic attempt to Marie Kondo my home. Having rediscovered them, I’m publishing this post because ‘Sancho: An Act of Remembrance’ tells such an important and moving true story.
I knew I was going to enjoy this play the moment Paterson Joseph bounded, exuberantly, on to the stage to introduce us to Charles Ignatius Sancho and to this play, which is very much a labour of love: Joseph researched, wrote and directed it himself.
A number of factors drove him, he explained, including frustration at never being offered parts in historical dramas, unlike his drama school contemporaries. There exists a myth that, in the 19th century, there were no people of colour in England –and this play is Joseph’s way of addressing that myth.
What followed was a 70 minute emotional rollercoaster which rattled through Sancho’s life, taking in its many highs & lows. Joseph is, quite simply, brilliant as Charles Ignatius Sancho, the man who was born on a slave ship (his mother died in childbirth), yet rose through society to mix with royalty and have his portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough.
It’s this portrait which led Joseph to Sancho; he came across it while reading a book by Gretchen Gerzina called ‘Black England’. It forms the focal point of the play and remains on the stage at all times, the 300-year-old “intimate and elegantly crumbling” building that is Wilton’s Music Hall providing the perfect backdrop.
Sancho’s life itself reads like something out of a book: sold, aged 3, to three maiden sisters in Greenwich – from whom he ran away because they wouldn’t teach him to read; then found by the Duke of Montagu, who did provide him with an education – one which enabled Sancho to become a musician and composer.
The play is particularly strong in bringing the history of that period to life; previously, I’d had no idea that a large black community existed in London: servants, freemen and sailors who would organise frolics and dances in London’s parks – and who often, contrary to what’s depicted in films and TV, had white spouses and mixed heritage children.
Sancho remained resolute in refusing to be stereotyped and forged friendships with many well-known London personalities, including Laurence Sterne (of ‘Tristram Shandy’ fame) and the renowned 18th century actor David Garrick; for a while, Sancho harboured hopes of becoming an actor himself.
He was moving in exalted circles indeed; at one point, we learn, Sancho wrote a book entitled ‘Theory of Music’, which he dedicated to the Princess Royal, to whom he taught music after becoming a member of the royal household. He also became the first black Briton to vote – a symbol of how far he had risen, at a time when the majority of the white population didn’t have the vote.
The last known fact about Sancho is that, towards the end of his life, he opened a grocer’s store in Westminster. Why and how, we do not know: ‘An Act of Remembrance’ encourages us to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps.
I loved the many historical facts I gleaned, I loved learning about the irrepressible Charles Ignatius Sancho – but most of all I will remember tonight for Joseph Paterson’s performance and his joyful enthusiasm in bringing to life this most intriguing of characters.