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Wedding Band | Lyric Hammersmith

At its strongest, Wedding Band stages visceral dialogue with confrontational honesty, depicting the harsh truths of interracial relationships in early 1900s America, yet a lack of thematic clarity and intention leaves the play lacking the impact it ought to have.

From the frequent gasps of the audience, its clear that Wedding Band shocks in its unwaveringly truthful depiction of America's South at the height of segregation; passionate and raw performances bring harrowing scenes to life and Alice Childress uses the uncomfortable to fantastic effect. With a central focus on the relationship between a white, prejudiced-raised man and an oppressed yet strong-willed black woman, the narrative is one of great heartbreak, frustration and tragedy. Unfortunately, while this compelling focus makes for a first act of intriguing drive, the latter half of the play, while starting off with fiery conviction, diverts attention to wider questions of American society, patriotism and generational oppression. While all compelling in their own right, in losing the intimacy of its premise, Wedding Band struggles to sustain the tragedy of its protagonist couple by the time the curtain falls, resulting in a conclusion that feels underwhelming in both its optimism and sadness.

Making its well earned UK premiere more than 50 years after it was originally penned by Alice Childress, this gorgeously staged production by director Monique Touko brings the piece to life with an abundance of visual metaphors, striking imagery and tasteful design. Crafted from stylised fences, the set by Paul Wills evokes a maze more than the literal home of Julia and her neighbours, forming a sense of claustrophobia and oppression inflicted upon her from the surrounding world. Yet these same fences appear to bring security also, and their gradual disappearance over the course of the play feels simultaneously liberating and exposing.

Julia's world feels authentic - Cynthia De La Rosa's wigs are beautiful, as are the costumes also by Wills. The same can be said for the music by Shiloh Coke which, when in full force is passionate and thrilling, amplified by Elena Pena's atmospheric sound design. Colour drains from the set as warm yellows turn to drab grey, drawing the eye to perhaps the most emphatic piece of set: a stained glass of checkerboard black and white. The piece lingers behind and above the actors, a constant reminder of the divide within their society. The use of silhouettes formed from Matt Haskin's subtly evolving lighting brings constant movement to the piece and a sense of intimidating community: Julia and Herman never receive the sense of privacy they deserve.

This community is brought to life remarkably by the cast who approach the text with sincerity and passion. Diveen Henry is a joy as Lula with fantastic comedic subtlety that punctuates the otherwise hard hitting play with moments of light relief. Quite contrastingly, Geraldine Alexander is infuriatingly convincing as Thelma, the vehemently racist mother of Herman and opens act two with astonishingly uncomfortable anger and hatred. It's Deborah Ayorinde as our protagonist Julia, however, who rightfully commands the stage with joy, affection and sorrow. Ranging from playful gossip-y exchanges with her neighbours to angered screams, Ayorinde takes her characteristion on a brilliantly compelling journey. Unfortunately, Childress' book sacrifices much of this journey by shifting the concluding focus to be of wider political commentary rather than the character driven introspectiveness of its first 90 minutes. The closing scenes may deliver thought provoking imagery and seemingly profound statements, yet in the context of the piece as a whole, it clouds the anger and frustration that makes the play so impactful.

Wedding Band is, at times, a resounding success, powerfully staging a story that sadly continues to ring true even in 2024, yet where it succeeds in simplistic narrative and character building, it struggles in its performative monologues, and indecisiveness on what it aspires to be - a tragic, intimate love story, or a grand political reflection of America's shameful history.

Wedding Band is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 29th June. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.

⭐️⭐️⭐️ (3*)

Gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Mark Senior


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