Reviewed – 17th June 2019
“Despite the lengthy playing time of this production, the audience was spellbound throughout”
In the wake of the Windrush scandal, it is a timely and welcome decision by the Bush Theatre to revive Caryl Phillips’ Strange Fruit. Written in the early 1980s and set at the same time, this intense family drama presents the story of a West Indian woman and her two adult sons as they confront the legacy of their past in the Caribbean, and an uncertain future in Britain. For Vivian, the mother, the past is a wrenching memory of a flight with two small boys, away from an alcoholic, abusive husband. Intelligent and hard working, Vivian sees Britain as a place where she can raise their sons in an environment that offers them safety from their father, and more educational and economic opportunity than can be found in their former home in the Caribbean. It is a dream that, at the very moment of fulfillment, turns into a nightmare.
Alvin, the older son, now a university graduate, has just returned from his grandfather’s funeral in the West Indies. Errol, his younger brother, is dreaming dangerous dreams of going to Africa with his pregnant white girlfriend, to become a “freedom fighter.” Meanwhile Vivian herself is continuing to work long hours as a teacher, without the promotions and recognition that her white colleagues, less experienced than she, have won. Her sons focus, not on her sacrifices for them, but on her failure to tell them the truth about their father, and cutting them off from their Caribbean roots. This is truly the story of a family caught between cultures.
As a young writer in the 1980s, Phillips handled the challenging material of Strange Fruit with the assurance that one would expect from a writer who later became an accomplished novelist. Despite the lengthy playing time of this production, the audience was spellbound throughout, a credit to Nancy Medina’s slick direction. Rakie Ayola as Vivian gave an accomplished performance, and she was ably assisted by Debra Michaels playing Vernice, her loyal West Indian friend and neighbour, who has resolutely hung onto the accent and the clothes of the Caribbean. Tok Stephen as Alvin gave a really outstanding performance as the son who has to confront the past that his mother fled from, and who returns to Britain determined to make a difference to his community if he can.
The only weakness of this triumphant revival is the set. Designer Max Johns created a minimalist, carpeted set with a square depression in the centre, almost like the so called “conversation pits” that were fashionable in American homes in the sxities and seventies. For a naturalistic drama like Strange Fruit, the decision to stage it in the round on this set has the curious effect, not of creating more intimacy, but of distancing the cast from the audience, and making the confrontations more muted. Other than that, this is a satisfying production. Recommended.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Helen Murray
Bush Theatre until 27th July
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Man of la Mancha
Reviewed – 30th April 2019
“the real star of the show, is Danielle De Niese …her voice soars and enchants with a lilting sweetness and strength”
Man of La Mancha is set in a Detention Centre and begins with the arrival of two new prisoners, Cervantes and his manservant. They have a trunk with them, and the inmates are keen to plunder it. The Governor, played by Nicholas Lyndhurst, wants to put Cervantes on trial and confiscate his belongings if he is found guilty, and Cervantes makes his defence in the form of a play; Don Quixote. The Don tilts at windmills and falls in courtly love with Aldonza, a serving girl and part time prostitute in a roadside inn, who he sees as a perfect woman and names his Lady Duncinea. Cervantes casts the other inmates in various roles, and the Governor plays the innkeeper, giving Lyndhurst the opportunity to switch from forbidding to gently incompetent, which he does with skill and evident enjoyment. Cervantes’ manservant and Don Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza are played by Peter Polycarpou, and he is one of the show’s delights. He is funny and touching in his devotion to the eccentric knight, and to his ‘real’ master.
The other delight, and the real star of the show, is Danielle De Niese who plays Aldonza/Dulcinea. She is fiery, strong and vulnerable, angry at Quixote’s refusal to see her for who she really is, coping with the rough muleteers in the inn, who eventually brutalise her, and very touching at the end when she accepts the name Dulcinea for the first time and starts the spine tinglingly beautiful cast version of The Impossible Dream. Her voice soars and enchants with a lilting sweetness and strength, and her acting is powerful and compelling.
It is Kelsey Grammer’s misfortune to be surrounded by a cast of hugely talented singers. His Cervantes/Quixote is engaging and hugely characterful; on the acting front he doesn’t put a foot wrong, but his voice doesn’t stand up well against virtuoso talent such as De Niese. His rendition of ‘Dulcinea’ felt insecure and in his solo ‘Impossible Dream’ he seemed to be bracing himself for the top notes. When the muleteers sing ‘Little Bird’ it is evident that there are some fabulous voices in the ensemble; this is a very strong cast. Emanuel Alba deserves a mention for his lovely comic turn as the barber, and Eugene McCoy’s Duke has a nice touch of the Lucius Malfoys when we first see him.
As you would expect of the Coliseum, the set, lighting and sound, by James Noone, Rick Fisher and Mick Potter respectively, are superb. Rebecca Howell is the choreographer, and she has created some exceptional work, such as the electrifying gypsy dance, for this piece. Fight Director Kate Waters produced a lovely comedy fracas at the inn, and Fotini Dimou’s costume design allows for some impressively quick changes and helps create a convincing world within Noone’s set.
The story of Don Quixote is a love song to the imagination and Man of La Mancha takes us into a double world. Do we prefer the reality or the fantasy? Each of us has to decide for ourselves, but Quixote’s fantasy world has a purity and beauty that entices and enchants.
Reviewed by Katre
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Man of la Mancha
London Coliseum until 8th June
Last ten shows covered by this reviewer: