Bush Theatre, London – until 27 July 2019
Caryl Phillips’ play Strange Fruit focuses on cultural identity in 1980s Britain. Vivian (Rakie Ayola) left the Caribbean with her two young sons Errol and Alvi, seeking a better life, but after 20 years in England the family finds themselves caught between two cultures.
The grown-up brothers are disaffected and angry. Errol (Jonathan Ajayi) rages at society and that includes his mother and white girlfriend Shelley (Tilly Steele) – which doesn’t make for comfortable viewing.
England is riddled with racism and prejudice, neither brother feels welcome or that it is the land of opportunity their mother believes. Errol covets a life in Africa where he sees society as being more equitable.
Alvin (Tok Stephen) sees the cold stark reality having visited their estranged family in the Caribbean for their grandfather’s funeral. They are a part of two different cultures but aren’t accepted by either.
Vivian is a teacher but remains stuck at the lower rungs because of her race but is forgiving of the prejudices. She is a gentle, stubbornly caring mother and becomes an easy target for blame by Errol and later Alvin.
The relentless snide remarks and direct verbal abuse she receives is distressing to watch and doesn’t paint a favourable view of the two sons, regardless of how harshly they’ve been treated by society. And the problem with this constant level of rage and anger, particularly from Errol, is that is doesn’t give the character anywhere to go and after a while, it numbs you to any pain or shock of revelation.
Dialogue is often delivered in long speeches which don’t move the narrative on as quickly as they could. The back and forth debate is sharper and has more pace.
There is some light relief in the form of spiky-tongued, non-nonsense neighbour Vernice (Debra Michaels) who drops in on Vivian at regular intervals. In fact, it is the women that come to the fore and feel like the more interesting and sympathetic characters.
The staging is curious. A deconstructed living room with no furniture just a square pit, which hints at a fighting arena, covered in cheap carpet for a domestic feel.
It means the actors flit on and off stage to the kitchen, front door and bedrooms frequently and some key moments are lost ‘backstage’.
L-r Tilly Steele as Shelley and Jonathan Ajayi as Errol in ‘Strange Fruit’, Bush Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray
The actors never fully utilise the space spending more time walking around or sitting around the edge of the pit than at its centre which seems only reserved for the biggest fights.
Strange Fruit is an exposing and painful play but it feels like it distracts itself from its otherwise powerful key theme.
It is the treatment of the women at the hands of the men which stands out rather than the injustice, disconnect and disaffection – however much warranted – felt by the two sons.
It is three hours long including an interval and is at the Bush Theatre until 27 July and I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️.
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Rakie Ayola who is superb in Strange Fruit was also rather good in Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln Theatre earlier this year.
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From the archive: 10 Very British Theatre problems.
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