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Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White at Lyric Hammersmith

Alice Childress was an American novelist, actor and playwright, describing her work as “trying to portray the ‘have-nots’ in a ‘have’ society”. Born in 1916, just before Wedding Band is set, she wrote her first play, Florence, in 1949, owing to the influence of actor Sidney Poitier.

Deborah Ayorinde and David Walmsley in Wedding Band at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. Photo credit: Mark Senior.
Deborah Ayorinde and David Walmsley in Wedding Band at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. Photo credit: Mark Senior.

Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, followed in 1966, but in spite of being staged successfully in the USA, it has never received a major production in the UK until now.

It is set in South Carolina where “marriage between a white person and an Indian, Negro, Mulatto, Mestizo, or half-breed” was illegal under an 1895 statute. The play explores the enduring love between a white man (David Walmsley) who also happens to be called Herman, being of German descent – the USA having recently entered World War One against Germany – and a black woman (Julia: Deborah Ayorinde). He is a baker, she a seamstress. Problems start to multiply when Herman, visiting Julia in her multiple occupancy tenement, becomes ill with life-threatening influenza.

Ayorinde is superb as Julie, getting not only the resilience and determination of the character, but also the humanity and passion of the role. As with many plays, she makes the writing appear better than it actually is and is quite charismatic whenever she is in a scene.

One feels that Walmsley really inhabits the role of Herman, again being totally convincing and obviously “in love”. His enunciation is crystal clear, unlike that of some of the smaller roles, and every line, and every word has clearly been explored in rehearsal to give a very believable portrayal.

Mattie (Bethan Mary-James) can best be described as having a bitter personality, caring for her daughter as well as a white girl, amplifying the difficulties of race relations over a century ago.

Lula (Diveen Henry) is a big-hearted woman whose son is about to go and fight in Europe during the aforementioned influenza epidemic. This is another well-thought-through portrayal: bringing out the complexities of her attitude towards Herman and the war itself.

The play is inhabited by a plethora of secondary characters, many more concerned with surviving rather than with the complexities of why people just cannot ‘get on’ no matter what their colour, race or religion. Plus ça change!

Monique Touko’s at times rather slow production benefits from a superb brutalist see-through wire mesh set (Paul Wills), allowing scenes to melt into each other and Matt Haskins has designed lighting that always allows us to see actors’ faces clearly as well as swiftly establishing mood. There seems to be a vogue at present of the director asking for an almost continual backing track of sounds and music (Elena Pena), as if trying to influence what emotion we, the whole audience, should be feeling. This is quite subtle, but I prefer silence so that I can concentrate on the play and decide my emotions!

A powerful piece of drama! Recommended.

4 stars

Review by John Groves

Starring in the production are Geraldine Alexander (Bridgerton, Sea Creatures) as Thelma, Deborah Ayorinde (Riches, Harriet) as Julia, Lachele Carl (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Trick) as Fanny, Poppy Gilbert (Perfect Addiction, The Catch) as Annabelle, Diveen Henry (Hang, I Think We Are Alone) as Lula, Patrick Martins (Small Town Big Story, Falling For the Life of Alex Whelan) as Nelson, Bethan Mary-James (Meetings, Trouble in Butetown) as Mattie,  David Walmsley (Slow Horses, Blood Wedding) as Herman and Owen Whitelaw (Get Millie Black, My Son) as Bell Man.

Children’s roles are shared by Lylianna Eugene (Secret Invasion) as Teeta, Poppy Graham (Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite) as Princess, Saskia Holness (Champion) as Teeta, and Wren Stembridge (Leonora In The Morning Light ) as Princess.

Set & Costume Design by Paul Wills, Wigs, Hair & Make-Up Design by Cynthia De La Rosa, Lighting Design by Matt Haskins, Sound Design by Elena Peña, Music by Shiloh Coke, Choreography & Movement by Aline David, Wigs, Hair & Make-Up Associate Design by Keisha Paris-Banya, Casting by Sophie Parrott CDG, Dialect & Voice Coaching by Joel Trill, Fight & Intimacy Direction by Bethan Clark, and Assistant Direction by Mo Korede.

Set in the deep south of the USA in 1918 when interracial marriage was illegal, Julia, a black seamstress, and Herman, a white baker, are defying all odds with their secret love. They face vicious judgement not just by society but also their closest friends and family. As they finally begin to believe their dreams for a future together are possible, Herman becomes a victim of the Spanish flu. Determined to save him, Julia is faced with decisions that will change her life.

Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
31 May to 29 June 2024

The Promise at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre

Author

  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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