So much praise has been heaped on Lenny Henry during his transformation from comic to serious actor, but despite the accolades I've been curiously reluctant to watch him in his new guise. To me, Lenny is Theophilus P Wildebeeste, one of a host of funny, wild-eyed and overblown caricatures. So I feared not only could this reincarnation be a bit of a gimmick, but also his larger-than-life presence would overshadow his character and distract from the rest of the play.
Fences by August Wilson is a departure from Lenny's previous dramatic outings in Shakespeare, the story of Troy Maxson, a black garbage collector in Pittsburgh and gifted baseball player who could have made it in the major league if not for his colour and the deprivation of his background. Instead, Troy has bought a house with the proceeds of a payout to his younger brother Gabriel who was injured in the war, and is settled there with his wife Rose and son Cory. As the play opens he arrives home with his best friend Jim Bono, drinking on the veranda as Rose busies herself with their dinner.
Despite the initial high spirits of a Friday night, Troy emerges as a troubled character, burdened by the responsibilities of raising a family and keeping a roof over their heads, discriminated against at work and frightened at the prospect of death. It appears at first he has a lovingly physical relationship with Rose, but all is not as it seems. What is clear from the beginning, however, is that Troy has difficulty in accepting his children's choices, in particular resenting his younger son Cory's talent as a football player and chance of a college scholarship. Nothing came of Troy's sporting talent and he's certain his son is wasting his time too, angered by Cory's lack of focus on work and chores, which include helping to finish the fence being erected around the Maxson property.
August Wilson's ten Pittsburgh plays are each part of a cycle relating to a different decade of the 20th century. Fences is set in the 1950s, an era still dominated by racial segregation and although it was written in the 1980s, when some of the worst excesses of discrimination had arguably been dismantled, many audiences might still have lacked understanding that a black garbage collector could have an interior life. The play, with it's undertones of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, was a great success, winning a Pulitzer Prize when performed on Broadway with James Earle Jones in the role of Troy. A 2010 revival starred Denzel Washington, large shoes indeed for Lenny Henry to fill in this Theatre Royal Bath production of a very American play.
Fortunately Lenny has big feet, as fill those shoes he does in a riveting and measured performance which encompasses all the light and shade of one man's torment. After the first couple of minutes, I completely forgot I was watching anybody but Troy Maxson, a man with plenty to say. As he veers from exuberant banter to challenging the Grim Reaper to moments of naked and painful revelation, Lenny is more than equal to the task of portraying a big man often brought low, a self-reliant survivor who is often harsh with his family and justifies his own weaknesses without any recognition of the loyalty he's accepted as his right. And so he builds a fence, slowly and haphazardly, to keep his family in or to keep the world away.
There are lighter moments but with so much raw emotion, it's not unexpected that this play is sometimes unbalanced and so central is Troy that it can drag when he's not commanding the stage. But there are other very solid performances too, most notably Tanya Moodie as Rose and Colin McFarlane as Jim Bono. Libby Watson's set is enchanting, allowing glimpses of characters approaching on the path or busy around the house, although this is occasionally distracting - as when Rose took so long to peel a couple of apples that I became entirely fixated on her pie at the expense of the narrative. And the ending too is protracted, one which I rehearsed several times in my mind before it eventually arrived. But without doubt, this is a hugely enjoyable and moving production, one for which Lenny Henry, no longer the comic but a serious actor in a leading role, deserves every second of his solo bow.
Fences opened at the Theatre Royal Bath on 20th February 2013 and is currently at the Duchess Theatre in London.