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Review of FENCES Starring Lenny Henry at the Duchess Theatre

Lenny Henry returns to the West End as Troy Maxson in FencesAugust Wilson’s Fences opened in Bath earlier this year to strong reviews and then toured before transferring to the Duchess Theatre in the West End, where the powerful performances at the opening preview we saw were applauded with a standing ovation. Although I personally found it too long and wished a few times that one of our own sub-editors at The Times had been let loose on the script, I was clearly in a minority. One highlight was towards the end, when the extraordinarily talented Tranae Sinclair came on as the young child Raynell and sang with the sweet purity that matched her years. Ashley Zhangazha was also stunningly dynamic as Cory, the adolescent son of Lenny Henry’s Troy, and we can surely look forward to seeing him many times again on the West End stage.

But of course it is the star, Henry, who many were there to see, a comic genius playing a tragic anti-hero. This must be a challenging part for an actor because there is little, well nothing actually, that is likeable about Troy. Engrossed by the present debate about roles for black actors on the West End stage, I came to this show intrigued to see in action, for the first time certainly in my life, an all-black cast. But within minutes, under Paulette Randall’s keenly figured direction, this issue for itself became irrelevant.

It was undeniably shocking to hear the frequent utterance of the “n” word, an aural intrusion that is possibly confusing in its impact on a mainly white audience. In today’s educated and politically correct world, it is not acceptable to say such words and I felt guilty merely at hearing it, every time it was said. Possibly the only place this word can still make an appearance in the flesh with “safety” is in such a play, with such a cast of characters. In 1957 when the play is set, such terms were common, either as terms of abuse or self-referentially as a cultural norm, as it is becoming again today in some cities.

So what to do with the sense of revulsion that rises up in a middle-class white person as the “n” word explodes from the mouths of these marginalised and maltreated characters, time after time? Drawn into the terrible cycle of Troy’s self-destructiveness as it spills over into the destruction of the dreams of his family, I was forced by the relentless language into awareness of watching troubled and endearingly human characters act out their demons and their salvation, none more endearingly and wistfully lovable in the end than Troy’s wife, Tanya Moodie’s Rose. I was also appalled by the circumstances of a society that could deprive people such as Troy Maxson of the opportunities to fulfil their talents, in his case as a baseball player, and reminded by my own responses that just because times have moved on and we are in a different country, this does not mean such issues are dead.

Having a few days earlier seen To Kill A Mockingbird at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, where similar issues of race, discrimination and the evils wrought by poverty are seen from the “other” side, it was interesting to compare the sets. Timothy Sheader’s set at the Open Air Theatre was minimal, with chalk used to denote the high street, court buildings and other scenery. At the Duchess, the approach was the opposite. Libby Watson’s design conceived a large, ramshackle wooden house with the characteristic Pittsburgh veranda and rough planks for sawing the eponymous “fences” at the fore. The central grace they both shared was a beautifully lit, solitary tree. This dominated the stage at the Open Air Theatre, until it was upstaged by the cast. And likewise at Fences, the tender tree somehow subsumes the larger house, bringing a sense of life overcoming man-made tragedy, which in the end is the moral of the play. This comes through the person of the small, barely-seen but transformative Reynell.

At first I did not much like this play, because it was such a contrast to so much on in the West End at the moment. There is nothing sugary in Fences. But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it afterwards. Sometimes it is good to be discomfited. It brought back the strangeness and violence of my own childhood as a far-from-wealthy minority white girl in Jamaica in the early 1960s. It made me grateful that we were able to move back to England and leave all that behind. And it made me reflect in a new and penitential way on the vast numbers, black and white, for whom there was and still is no escape.

Review by Ruth Gledhill @ruthiegledhill

Content updated 2nd April 2014