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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
FENCES
at Duchess Theatre

CHIP ON THE SHOULDER
By JOHN NATHAN

  Lenny Henry and Ashley Zhangazha/ Ph: Nobby Clark

No one can accuse Lenny Henry of taking the easy route in making the transition from TV light entertainment comedian to classical actor. After spending a half-lifetime crowd pleasing and gurning with loud, larger-than-life characters such as Theophilus P. Wildebeeste, an African sex symbol and womaniser (favourite chat-up line, “Have you got any African in you?” followed by, “Do you want some?”) he took the plunge with Othello to widespread acclaim. And in August Wilson's 1987 play, in which he plays Troy Maxson, a failed baseball player who takes his resentments out on his sons, Henry deserves praise, too. 

Set between the Korean and Vietnam wars, Fences is from Wilson's ten-installment Pittsburgh-set cycle reflecting African American experience (one for each decade of the last century). It's a play that teaches us that it's not the events in life that define us, but how we mould them into a version of the truth that makes it easier to live with ourselves. It's an observation Arthur Miller made to devastating effect in plays such as All My Sons, in which a father lives in denial about the damage he caused his offspring, or The Price, in which one brother holds the other responsible for an unfulfilled life. And in this Pulitzer-winning play, Wilson is equally devastating.

The play is set entirely in the yard of the modest, rickety house whose mortgage Troy has been paying for 15 years. Troy takes responsibility seriously, every Friday handing over his wage earned as a garbage man to his wife Rose, holding just a little back to sink a bottle of liquor with his old friend and former prison inmate Bon while they sit on the stoop of Troy's house. And responsibility is the reason he prevents his youngest son Cory from forging a career in American Football. He would be better off with a trade, Troy says, something no one can take away from you in the way that white baseball team owners denied Troy his career because he was black. 

But there is always the suspicion that this patriarch is as motivated as much by jealousy as by a father's instinct to guide his son away from making his own mistakes. The boys were born into a less prejudiced world than him. And that is just one more unfair thing in an unfair world. Troy won't even go to see his elder musician son's gig.

But in Paulette Randall's very sold production, suspicions don't end there. There is also the sense that Henry still has to be more discerning when deploying mannerisms developed years ago for his comedy. You wouldn't expect him to jettison the lot. But there are moments when Troy indulges in sex banter with Bono, for instance, during which Henry gyrates his hips a la Theophilus P. implying hat Troy has such a repertoire of comedy gesticulations at his disposal that deep down he is not a frustrated baseball player at all but a wannabe comedian. Henry terrifically transmits the bitterness of a man who resents not being taken seriously (a comedian's condition?), but those over-egged moments put his performance in the shadows, especially next to Tanya Moodie's Rose, Troy's loyal and betrayed wife, whom Moodie plays with pitch-perfect precision, often using the classical actor's greatest secret weapon: stillness.

 


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