Family relationships are never easy; tied together by blood, kinship, marriage or choice, family members can take one another for granted, disguise difficult truths, hold one another to account, and feel betrayal and loss keenly. In Caryl Phillips’ Strange Fruit, set in 1980s Britain, Vivian and her two sons arguably experience greater obstacles than most, as they attempt to navigate their Afro-Caribbean heritage in a largely intolerant, white society.
Having moved from the Caribbean many years ago, Alvin and Errol have been given the life and education that their mother Vivian (given an ostensible harassed, nervous disposition that masks a quiet inner strength by Rakie Ayola) desired for them. Yet Errol, 21 with an Economics degree from a top British university, is dissatisfied, a revolutionary who smarts against Black injustice and wages war with ‘whiteness’ at every turn. His white school-girl girlfriend Shelley, however, parallels his relationship with white Britain – he is happy to use her for his own purposes, then treat her cruelly and discard her when he is done.
Their relationship makes for uncomfortable viewing; Jonathan Ajayi imbues his portrayal of Errol with a cocksure, unpredictable energy that can quickly go sour as he bounds about the stage. Tilly Steele as Shelley has a naïve desperation as she fiercely clings to Errol, pregnant and (seemingly) unloved by her own parents. As Errol’s brother Alvin appears in Act II, having returned from his grandfather’s funeral in the Caribbean, tensions remain high as the seething, burgeoning frustration underlying Alvin (captured perfectly by Tok Stephens) bubbles to the surface. Errol, it seems, rails against white racism and privilege. Alvin, it emerges, is disquieted by the secrets surrounding his mother’s estranged relationships with her family back ‘home’, the lies she has told her sons, the answers she has been (and is still) unable to give about their heritage, and the cloak of (what they assume is) ‘white Britishness’ that she shrouded them with (at her cost, mind).
The play smarts of ungrateful sons, frequent misunderstandings, misogyny, and racism (against Black and White), yet is interwoven with moments of brilliantly poetic insight and storytelling that reduced my companion to tears. The simple set design (by Max Johns) evokes a large living room, where we as the audience are privy to the most intimate conversations and disputes that only take place in family homes, rendering the play – at times – almost unbearable. Yet rather heavy themes and dysfunctional relationships are punctuated at times with moments of pure comedy, and there is some superb acting across the board.
Directed with confidence and a real focus on storytelling by Nancy Medina, Strange Fruit is a heavyweight play, that, whilst not be for the faint-hearted (or time-pressured, given it is 3 hours in length), rightfully claims its place within the canon of literature surrounding identity formation and familial relationships.
Review by Amy Stow
‘I go half way round the world and back thinking I’d made some sort of discovery and come back to find the same damn lies, the same white lies, the same black lies.‘
Alvin and Errol can’t picture much of a future for themselves. They’re young, black and living in England in the 1980s, with an entire country and political system set against them. Instead, they focus firmly on their past – the sunny Caribbean and heroic father they left behind when their mother brought them to England twenty years ago.
But when Alvin returns home from his grandfather’s funeral in the Caribbean, a new version of their past emerges, and the two brothers are caught in a desperate struggle to unearth the truth about their existence.
CARYL PHILLIPS’ STRANGE FRUIT AT THE BUSH THEATRE
Written by Caryl Philips
Directed by Nancy Medina
Designed by Max Johns
Lighting Design by Sally Ferguson
Sound Design by Xana
Cast – Jonathan Ajayi, Rakie Ayola, Debra Michaels, Tilly Steele and Tok Stephen
12 June – 27 July at the Bush Theatre, 7 Uxbridge Road, London, W12 8LJ