Over the last few decades, Caryl Phillips has built a strong and wholly deserved reputation as an award-winning novelist who speaks cogently on behalf of black immigrants to the United Kingdom and their ancestors.
Therefore, this revival in-the-round by Nancy Medina of an early play should have proved intriguing. However, Strange Fruit was written in 1979 just after the aspiring writer left university and demonstrates more anger than talent.
Viewers are not helped by a lack of definition with regard to either time or locations. It seems reasonable to assume that events are planning out as Margaret Thatcher was taking power, although much of the discussion could as easily relate directly to the Windrush generation. Thereby lies another problem, since this revival will inevitably be compared with Helen Edmundson’s infinitely superior adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Small Island, currently playing at the National.
Vivian and Vernice were friends on an unnamed Caribbean island before coming to the UK 19 years in the past, suggesting that they are probably second wave British West Indians circa 1960. Where the former portrayed by Rakie Ayola is an Anglophile schoolteacher with an accent that seems modelled on the Queen, Debra Michaels playing her old friend cannot be bothered to work and has a patois thick enough to be intermittently unintelligible.
Both are widows facing similar problems with rebellious children. Jonathan Ajayi is Vivian’s younger son Errol, a young man who is delusional and quite possibly psychotic. This economic graduate is apparently a gun-toting revolutionary spouting about black power but contrarily has a shy, inarticulate white girlfriend, Tilly Steele’s Shelley, who announces early on to his mother that she is pregnant.
Tok Stephen as Vivian’s other son Alvin does not make an appearance until after the interval, having been sent off to pay respects at his grandfather’s funeral back home. There, he discovers a series of unlikely secrets that seem drawn from the lowest kind of soap opera, designed entirely to fuel a series of angry speeches rather than depict real life.
The result is a messy play in which unlikely revelations appear at regular intervals. The plotting is as weak as the characterisation in this plodding three-hour-long work that only shines when individuals deliver powerful set piece speeches about the predicament of hated immigrants trying to make their way in a society that does nothing to disapprove of or stamp out casual racism.
Caryl Phillips is a fine writer and anyone interested in the Anglo-Caribbean experience would be far better off reading some of his novels than seeing this disappointing piece of theatre.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher