Review: Strange Fruit, Bush Theatre

Rare is it that a first attempt at any art is so emotionally complex, brimming with potential, bitterness and written skill. Think about the last time you started something from scratch –  outstanding, was it? The established author Caryl Phillips’ first play Strange Fruit simmers at the Bush Theatre with all its muted pain and a production that happily keeps up with her pace.

And what a pace! Set in the living room of the Marshal family the late 70s, the characters individually battle with issues of racism, identity, heartbreak and the gulf that develops between people who love one another. This tale is tough going, following the hard working Vivian (Rakie Ayola) as she tries to bring up her sons alone in a hostile Britain. Charting the disconnect, anger and resentment that builds between old and new ideas, this play packs a punch in its exploration of humanity and the struggle to survive. With utterly fantastic writing, it’s a bright, sharp and painful holding up of a mirror, not just to the obvious evils of the British Empire, but the complex legacy it leaves with those caught up in the horrors of colonialism.

But a good script can be butchered by a bad production. Luckily for the Bush Theatre, this is not the case. With its confident and clever staging, and some utterly inspiring performances, this production will sweep you off your feet and leave you in a heap crying. Ayola (The Cursed Child, Shetland, Black Mirror) oscillates with a jumpy resilience as the determined but hopelessly doomed Vivian. Working so hard for her children but getting nothing but resentment and lack of understanding in return, and wreathed in lies sweet as honey, she is the bedrock of the production.

Jonathan Ajayi’s portrayal of Vivian’s youngest child, the wild and unpredictable Errol, is conflicting for the audience as this complex character is both naive and passionate, political and childlike and yet able to inflict acts of real cruelty. It is, again, another outstanding performance. The rest of the cast play their parts with emotional range and contradiction, using the desired mix of West Indian patois, standard English and working-class regional dialogue to explore the class and race debate that rages throughout the piece as a whole. A mention must also go to Tilly Steele as Shelly, Errol’s downtrodden white girlfriend who’s role could have easily become just comic relief, and at points does provide a laugh, but who showcases the interesting dichotomy as the only white character, lost within a world she so desperately wants to understand.

Hats off to Max Johns, whose set, a bare stage that seems to stretch out for miles blanketed in a retro green carpet and graduated with a large (still carpeted) central depression, is genius. The emotional and physical space imposed on the characters by the set, and the levels used to exploit one another perfectly allow for the language and arguments to abound within the plush setting. Lighting, sound and Nancy Medina’s intuitive blocking and direction all join together to create a sucker punch of a piece, enlightening as it is uncomfortable.

Strange Fruit is a slice of Britain’s history many would rather forget, tackled from such a fascinating angle. Instead of the classic narrative, this piece gives us human complexity and turmoil, a story of the African diaspora, modern Britain and the yearning for identity and home. This is not a happy tale, but a tale of cold realities, of people just doing their best to carry on and protect their family. A truly majestic piece, I cannot recommend this more. 

Strange Fruit is playing until 27 July. For more information and tickets, visit the Bush Theatre website.