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Living Pretty

Ray Brown
The Drum, Birmingham, and touring
(2005)

Alfred Williams was one of the many Jamaicans who acted on the suggestion that he come to Britain to help "the Mother Country" the way she'd helped Jamaica. They wanted to come because the proverbial milk and honey were plentiful.

Alfred arrived on these shores just as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was proclaiming that we'd "never had it so good". The reality for Alfred was totally different: employers didn't give black men jobs and landlords who had rooms suddenly didn't have any vacancies when a black man turned up on their doorstep.

Alfred summed up his situation: "If there was a bridge across the sea long as from here to hell, I would have walk it. But I had no fare to return and there was no bridge, no road across the sea. So I realise that I must remain in Mother Country."

Alfred's determination and hard graft eventually paid off. He moved to Leeds, bought a run-down house and replicated the standard of living he'd given up in Jamaica to come to Britain. Before he died in 1997, Alfred collaborated with Ray Brown to write a book of his life story, To Live It Is To Know It. Now Brown, a new British Theatre Guide reviewer, has written and directed Living Pretty, a one-hour adaptation of the book.

A one-man show, Living Pretty catalogues the diverse adventures of Alfred's life, from his childhood in a farming area in Jamaica to his experiences with the NHS in Britain.

Everal A Walsh is the ideal choice for the part. Extremely versatile, he plays eighteen different characters, including Alfred at the various stages of his life. Walsh effortlessly switches from one to another, letting the pace slacken only when the script demands. He is never phased by the relatively bare stage with few props; members of the audience have to use their imagination to a certain extent, although Walsh paints vivid pictures.

You believe Walsh is the young boy being caned at school for his misdemeanours, the teacher angry because someone has taken all the pencils and the deep-voiced father who wants to know why Alfred has been playing truant.

You sympathise with Alfred's predicaments, you're grateful when something good happens in his life and you laugh at his funny anecdotes, particularly the ones about how cold he found England and his first encounter with snow.

Throughout the production, Walsh is accompanied by Lit Eziefula who sings tenderly and passionately. However, she has so few songs that her contribution almost seems superfluous. She deserves to be heard more. And I couldn't understand why she sits at the back of the stage looking as though she's asleep when she's not singing.

Occasionally I felt there might have been a smoother transition from one scene to the next - but overall Alfred Williams would have been delighted with Ray Brown's offering. It's a commentary on a chapter of history which otherwise would have disappeared with Alfred's passing.

Steve Orme