Fences, Duchess Theatre, London

In all conscience, we critics may have slightly patronised Lenny Henry on his previous dramatic stage appearances. The veteran TV comedian did a solid job as Othello but one wanted to be encouraging, welcome him into the fold and all that; in The Comedy Of Errors, he was more at ease, perhaps because closer to his more usual comic territory. But this ... this is indubitably the business.

As fiftysomething refuse collector Troy Maxson, Henry at first uses his natural comic warmth – facial expressions or just darts of the eyes, at times even exaggerated voices – but he does so not as a shtick but to establish the warmer side of Troy. (Many of these bantering scenes are performed with Colin McFarlane, who proves an expectedly excellent foil.)

But as the tensions in Troy’s life become first apparent and then inescapable, Henry gradually discards these mannerisms; more and more we see him rumbling or outright raging, and he does so powerfully. At more or less the same age as Troy, his face is beginning to show gravitas: at some moments he reminded me of Clarke Peters in his more grinding moments in The Wire, at others of reggae singer Bunny Wailer. His portrayal of Troy’s rage at his domestic disintegration made me begin to look forward to seeing him essay King Lear in a few years.

Fences, the 1950s episode in August Wilson’s project to write a play set in Pittsburgh during each decade of the 20th century, garnered a Pulitzer and a Tony on its 1987 premiere. One can see why it is regarded as one of the strongest parts of Wilson’s cycle. Although it is at times overwritten, this is principally in a final, Troy-posthumous scene that is too determined to round everything off. Elsewhere, Wilson strikes a far better balance between writerly concerns and human interaction; that banter I talked about is not imposed on the script, it springs naturally from it in Paulette Randall’s agile production. And Henry is a beloved figure in Britain but on this occasion we do not need to want to admire him.


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