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Strange Fruit review at Bush Theatre, London – ‘an assured and affecting revival’

Jonathan Ajayi and Tilly Steele in Strange Fruit at the Bush Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray
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Errol Marshall wants to know himself. This overwhelming desire fuels a burning rage and consumes every fibre of his being. It’s literally driving him mad. The reasons behind this are obvious: he is a young black man growing up without a father in Thatcher’s England, having moved with his family from their native home in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, his mother relaxes her hair, wears skin-tone tights designed for white people, and speaks in that plummy way using only the front of her mouth.

Caryl Phillips’ 1979 debut play Strange Fruit is a great tangle of conflict. Jonathan Ajayi is magnificent as Errol, a man battling to understand his blackness while dating Shelley, a white woman – a heartbreakingly good Tilly Steele. His mother – a perfectly pitched performance from Rakie Ayola – is the opposite; she understands her blackness but wants to be rid of it. She attempts to present herself as a picture of precious white respectability.

Xana’s gorgeous sound design is a constant reminder of Errol’s heritage; steel pans float in an out of audibility like a ghostly whisper from a distant home. It brilliantly complements Max Johns’ set design/art installation, which takes inspiration from Michael McMillan’s 2003 book The Front Room.

All these elements are brought together to gut-wrenching effect in Nancy Medina’s production. Her direction captures all of the different conflicts in Phillips’ play and weaves them together in a way that is potent and affecting.

Musician and poet Xana: ‘It’s a challenge when I’m the only person who looks like me in the room’

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Nancy Medina’s assured and affecting revival of Caryl Phillips’ 1979 play