The stage directions of Caryl Phillips’ Strange Fruit are long and detailed when describing the set of the Marshalls’ front room, where everything takes place. For the Bush’s revival of this play, the latest part of their Passing the Baton series reacquainting audiences with past work by artists of colour, the accoutrements of the front room (trinkets, ceramic pineapple, armchair) are laid out in a foyer display. Members of the Bush’s staff have donated family photographs to it. It’s chintzy and familiar; somehow, it even smells right.
Inside the theatre, however, Max Johns’ design strips everything down to a blue, faintly flowery-patterned carpet into which your feet promptly sink. Beaded curtains mark each entrance. There’s a square depression in the centre of the space, down two steps, like a small arena or a soft-play area. No sharp edges. It’s the front room. It’s where things are proper – everything in its place.
Strange Fruit is a play about characters struggling to find their places: in a white British society which continues to marginalise and reject them, in each others’ lives, in a past which won’t straighten out the way they’d like it to. And that central, small arena-like space is host to their circling each other, their coming to blows, and one of the more excruciating (and mercifully brief) onstage sex scenes you’re likely to see.
Rakie Ayola is fantastic as the very composed Vivien, shining in a harrowing monologue about the violence she met when she first moved her family to Britain from the Caribbean. Her son, Errol (Jonathan Ajayi) is the problem-driver: a political activist in frantic first flush, cruel to his white girlfriend, his mother and anyone else who comes into contact with him. He bristles with self-hate; you see it in his personal violence, his fidgeting and constant undermining of others. There’s a strike on, a boycott of buying or using British goods and services (it makes me think of the Bristol Bus Boycott, but Phillips keeps it non-specific), and Errol has to believe it’ll help them change everything. Alvin (Tok Stephens) is his wryer, surer of himself older brother, returned from a first trip ‘back home’ for a funeral. He didn’t find it the victorious return to the motherland that Errol thinks he should have. Things are rarely that simple.
As Shelley, Tilly Steele is funny and sad, her arms often straight down at her sides, still addressing Vivien, a teacher, as ‘miss’. She and Errol are both still childlike in their own ways; she needs the relationship to move on, to grow up, and fast, while you see his inability to stay in it, and to treat her or his mother with any respect. Debra Michaels rounds out the cast as Vernice, a comic, compassionate counterpart to Vivien, struggling with her own daughter.
Sally Ferguson’s lighting design occasionally casts thin, very faint rainbowed bars onto the casts’ faces and the carpet; the sound design, by Xana, layers creaking over wind, as if from a ship, with steelpans, but thin and removed. Phillips’ writing is painfully accurate on the way communication sometimes becomes completely impossible within families. As the play goes on, Vivien is reduced to asking, again and again, what it is that her sons want from her, what it is that they mean by what they’ve just said. The characters are talking across each other, always slightly missing. As Vivien, Ayola tries to keep the other characters and their confrontations at a diagonal from her, with the tiny arena-space between them.
Nancy Medina’s direction is unfortunately static; with a play of this length – usually three acts, here two, but still running to three hours – and with such long scenes, the pace drags a little. Strange Fruit is a play which really does take its sweet time about these characters’ relationships, and while I like the uncanny anonymity of the set, the sense of huge space doesn’t help the tension to mount like a more cramped, fragilely filled front room might. Though Ajayi does variously loll about then burst out suddenly, much of the play passes just listening. One crucial piece of action takes place offstage, via sound effects, a bizarre enough choice that it’s almost humorous when it very much shouldn’t be. It will probably keep some harder of hearing audience members guessing as to what’s happening, when it should be immediate and awful.
Phillips’ ear for naturalistic dialogue as well as powerful, building monologues is likely as affecting now as it was when Strange Fruit premiered at the Crucible Theatre in 1981. That the Bush is giving audiences the chance to see it again or anew, with this cast, is great, despite the slight inefficiencies of this production.
Strange Fruit is on at the Bush Theatre till 27th July. More info here.