Wedding Band at Lyric Hammersmith review: remarkable '60s revival leaps through time to grab you by the throat

Wren Stembridge and Lylianna Eugene (Mark Senior)
Wren Stembridge and Lylianna Eugene (Mark Senior)

This extraordinary, sprawling play about a mixed-race couple failing to escape the segregated South Carolina of 1918 was written by the pioneering black American writer Alice Childress in 1962. It wasn’t staged in New York until 1972 and hasn’t had a major London production until now.

It’s an exhilarating find, blending politics, prejudice, social realism, melodrama and romance. Monique Touko’s swaggering production leans into the contradictions. I loved 90 per cent of it and was exasperated by the remainder, but this rediscovery is more exciting than half a dozen tired revivals.

Seamstress Julia (Deborah Ayorinde, an experienced screen actress making a bombshell stage debut here) joins a community of misfits in a set of backyard rental rooms. There’s middle-aged Lula and her discomfitingly virile adopted son Nelson, who’s been ‘allowed’ to fight in the Second World War by a relaxation of the racist Jim Crow laws.

There’s illiterate but feisty Mattie, yearning for her sailor lover and caring for her daughter Teeta and white girl Princess, who are together growing into an awareness of social difference. The property’s owner Miss Fanny craves the respect of, and emulates, white people but insists “the race” should stand apart.

Saskia Holness, Poppy Graham, Diveen Henry, Deborah Ayorinde and Bethan Mary-James in Wedding Band (Mark Senior)
Saskia Holness, Poppy Graham, Diveen Henry, Deborah Ayorinde and Bethan Mary-James in Wedding Band (Mark Senior)

So when it’s discovered that Julia has a long-standing white lover called Herman (David Walmsley) – in a state where intermarriage is banned – it shocks on many levels. First he’s ethnically German, the enemy. Second, he’s a baker. “When you pickin’ white, pick rich white,” sneers Mattie. Third, he contracts life-threatening influenza in Julia’s room: and neither the community nor his racist mother and sister will call a doctor because of shame over the relationship.

This is punchy, powerful stuff, with several chilling scenes. The other white male character, an itinerant seller of fripperies, believes he can rape Julia and taunt Nelson with impunity. The vicious exchange between Julia and Herman’s mother is brutal. Childress put slavery, segregation and race hatred centre stage two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But the sardonic exchanges between the backyard tenants and the passionate but petulant lovers are also extremely funny. Despite some phrases that sound dreadful now – “those sweet blackberry kisses” – the whole thing feels bracingly modern.

It’s staged on a skeletal set of wire cages and fences by Paul Wills, who keeps a final, beautiful image of redemption in store. Touko is an actors’ director, drawing a superb, raging central performance from Ayorinde as Julia and allowing the supporting characters space to breathe, and to accommodate audience laughter.

Although the whole thing could be pacier, and the second act could do with some explanatory finesse, this is a play that leaps through the decades to grab you by the throat. Remarkable.

Lyric Hammersmith, to June 29;