Writer: Caryl Phillips
Director: Nancy Medina
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
With news of immigration injustices still fresh in the mind and with the National Theatre’s current adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island, having thrown fresh light on them, there is a timely feel to Caryl Phillips’ intense drama. Set in the 1980s, the play examines how the Marshall family, a woman who emigrated to London from the Caribbean as part of the Windrush generation and her two sons, have adapted to their new home two decades later.
“The most important part of knowing where you’re going is knowing where you’re from” claims the older son, Alvin (Tok Stephen), explaining why he and his brother Errol (Jonathan Ajayi) crave to re-connect with their roots in the West Indies and, further back, Africa. The play, which is about identity and belonging, begins with Alvin absent, having gone to meet relatives left behind, at his grandfather’s funeral, and to try and trace news of his estranged father, an international cricketer who had turned to drink.
In a particularly moving scene, the mother, Vivian (Rakie Ayola), recounts to her neighbour, Vernice (Debra Michaels), the racist rejection that she suffered on her arrival in London and tears of disappointment drip from her every word. For all that, her objective had remained to integrate into London life, raising her sons to have steady jobs and become part of the predominantly white community. University drop-out Alvin sees her as “too busy playing white”, while his rebellious brother is “too busy playing black”.
The smouldering anger of Stephen’s Alvin contrasts with the uncontainable fire of Ajayi’s Errol. The younger brother sees everything in terms of race, supporting West Bromwich Albion because they are the only team at that time to have black players. He is a budding revolutionary who plots direct action and treats his pregnant white girlfriend, Shelley (Tilly Steele) as if she is a target for gaining revenge for black suppression.
Running at well over three hours (including an interval), the play is too long, occasionally losing focus and director Nancy Medina does not inject the pace that some stodgy scenes need. However, the production bursts into life with Alvin’s return home, having found himself as rejected and isolated in the Caribbean as his mother had been when she first arrived in London. Ajayi, Ayola and Stephen are all superb as the conflicting visions of their characters collide.
It says much for Phillips’ writing of key scenes and for the acting of them that the play is able to transcend seeming misjudgements in Medina’s production. The Bush Theatre, an adaptable space, is configured in the round, which proves to be of no obvious benefit, but, far worse, Max Johns’ design incorporates what appears to be an empty paddling pool, an irrelevance which impedes the actors’ movement around the stage. Ironically, Phillips describes the play’s setting, the Marshalls’ living room, in meticulous detail in the printed text. There is a mock-up of it in the theatre foyer, but, sadly, the absence of a sense of place inside the theatre itself proves detrimental to the drama.
The play demonstrates how seeds sown by one generation can result in a bitter harvest for the next and leads us to question how the consequences of historical racism are still being felt 30 years further on. Strange Fruit is slow to ripen and it starts to go off during its dragged out ending, but juicy scenes in the middle make it memorable and more than worthwhile seeing.
Runs until 17 July 2019 | Image: Helen Murray