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:
The Half God of Rainfall
Reviewed – 30th April 2019
“a captivating and unique blend of combined storylines and lineages that seamlessly interact and complement one another”
The Half God of Rainfall is the latest instalment from writer and poet Inua Ellams, performed at the recently revamped Kiln Theatre (formerly the Tricycle Theatre). It tells the mystical story of a half Nigerian mortal – half Olympian god, and his mortal mother.
Combining ancient Yoruba and Greek mythology, Ellams creates a sort of multiverse, with the Orishas and Olympian Gods standing side by side. This results in a captivating and unique blend of combined storylines and lineages that seamlessly interact and complement one another.
There is a strong sense of cohesive collaboration in this production. All the elements: design (Max Johns), sound (Tanuja Amarasuriya), lighting (Jackie Shemesh), movement (Imogen Knight) and direction (Nancy Medina) had purpose and neither obstructed nor overshadowed each other. The aesthetic of the production, down to the costume design was simplistic yet precise; permitting the audience to fill in the gaps with our imagination. It was impressive and rewarding to see the intelligence and effort behind every artistic choice. The sense of play and the world of mythology was all the more enhanced for the audience, as a result.
The play is a two hander and reads like an epic poem, reminiscent of writers such as Debbie Tucker Green and Homer. Though wordy in parts (and the accents being a little off at times) the language and stylish flow of Ellams’ writing had the dexterity to always engage one back to the story.
The actors, Rakie Ayola and Kwami Odoom traversed effortlessly between multiple characters with a fluidity that reinforced the continuous flowing rhythm of the story. Their dramatic choices were bold and distinct. Most of all, Ayola and Odoom were wonderful to watch; arresting, dynamic and exciting.
This play is a multi-layered, complex and highly intelligent piece of writing. Ellams addresses racial politics, legacy, culture, human spirit, self-destruction and the narrative of abused women and lost men all under one mythological roof. The audience is sent on a journey to Olympus and the galaxies beyond as though turning the pages of the story ourselves. The fine line between legend and reality was masterfully detailed reflecting our own need and desire to create demigods out of celebrities and sporting heroes.
Unpredictably clever throughout, poignant and fun, we were also brought, purposefully, back to Earth as Ellams reflected the brutality of life, at us. How those in power, who can seem untouchable like deities, so oft abuse their privileged and inflict violations beyond comprehension. And yet, even in the depths of pain and violation, the human spirit can be an indomitable and mighty force.
Ellams intertwines message and poetry with great balance. We do not leave the theatre with the thought that this is simply a play to be left in the clouds of fantasy. We’re reminded to take home the sobering and yet uplifting thought that a magnitude of strength resides in all of us and that the choice as how we wield it is, indeed, a great one.
A skilfully crafted, magical folktale; one that will certainly stand the test of time.
Reviewed by Pippin
Photography by Dan Tsantilis
The Half God of Rainfall
Kiln Theatre until 17th May