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The Theatreguide.London Review

Strange Fruit
Bush Theatre   Summer 2019

Caryl Phillips' play Strange Fruit, first performed in 1980, gives us a disturbing glimpse of the way racism in late 1970s England fractures one black family.

The mother Vivian came from the Caribbean with her two very young sons decades earlier, escaping an alcoholic partner. Determined to make a new life, she endured all kinds of verbal and even physical racial abuse to become a teacher. In the process her voice and her appearance became what she believed was more respectable, less distinctly black.

But her two sons have grown up in a time of social protest that makes them restless for change and dismissive of their mother's efforts to be accepted. As her son Errol (Jonathan Ajayi) sarcastically says when she goes to turn on the television news, it will just be another story about sixty-eight black youths being 'sentenced for conspiracy to stand on a street corner.'

His solution is to identify with Black nationalism. Alvin (Tok Stephen), his brother, having just returned from a trip to the Caribbean, has a bleaker and less romantic view of what a post-colonial society amounts to.

Complicating matters further for Errol is the pregnancy of his white girlfriend Shelly (Tilly Steele) who doesn’t fit with his image of a black future.

Very fine performances from a strong cast, in particular Rakie Ayola as the enduring mother and Debra Michaels as the troubled neighbour Vernice, vividly hold our attention for the three hours running time.

Despite its occasional roughness in construction this play seems to feel the pulse of a period when the hopes of some for a more multicultural society and the campaigns of many for social justice were to crash into the hard cold wall of Thatcherism.

Keith McKenna

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Review - Strange Fruit - Bush  Theatre 2019