As family dramas go, Caryl Phillips’s ‘Strange Fruit’ is at the epic end of the scale. At its core is the intergenerational conflict between Vivian (Rakie Ayola), who came to England from the West Indies as a single mother, and her now-grown-up sons, Errol (Jonathan Ajayi) and Alvin (Tok Stephen). Circling that is a huge racial and political backdrop, including the grotesque racism Vivian experienced when first immigrating, and the division between her views and those of each son living in a still deeply racist ’80s Britain.
Its bigness doesn’t always serve it well. Clocking in at three hours, it’s a lengthy piece with a tendency to give the characters over-explanatory speeches. But you can understand why: Phillips’s play quite literally has so much to say. It’s also engrossing to watch because Nancy Medina’s revival is performed by an excellent cast.
Ayola’s Vivian, accused by the others of behaving ‘too white’, is an RP-accented and immaculately turned-out woman whose teacher-y mannerisms feed into all her conversations. There’s real deliberateness to how she makes herself softly spoken, extra-polite and non-confrontational, but underlying it is absolute steel and a determination to survive.
Her son Errol is the complete opposite. His anger and emotion ricochet through the room like a flaming meteorite. When an argument with his brother Alvin turns physical, the result is genuinely terrifying.
But perhaps the best thing here is how the family’s chintzy home (designed by Max Johns) extends outside the performance space and all the way through to the Bush’s bar. There are ceramic dogs, fiddly bits of pressed lace, a commemorative plate adorned with Her Maj’s face and turquoise carpet running out the door.
Phillips’s play has always been about how the outside world bleeds into the inside one – both how a country’s politics filter into a family and how the world outside a theatre trickles into what we do or don’t see on stage. Performed 40 years after it was written, it remains a story that reverberates, echoes and expands far outside the theatre walls.