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Posts Tagged ‘Lenny Henry’

August Wilson was one of the greats of 20th century American drama, though he’s not as well known or as produced internationally as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. His great achievement was a cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, all in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he was brought up, with characters in some plays being referenced in others, documenting 100 years of the African American experience. We’ve seen all bar one here, though revivals after their UK premiere’s have been rare. Seventeen years after it was first seen at the Tricycle, this ninth play (in period, rather than writing), set in the Reagan’s America in the 80’s, gets a superb revival at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

King Hedley II is home from prison, where he served seven years. He lives at home with his mum Ruby, with whom he has a fractious relationship, and his wife Tonya. He has a seventeen-year-old daughter whom he hardly ever sees. He’s struggling to navigate life as an ex-con, selling knocked-off fridges with his best friend Mister to raise money to set up a video store. They try to speed up the fund-raising with a bigger crime. He’s keen to have a child with Tonya, but she doesn’t like the world it would be born into. Ruby’s old flame, smooth hustler Elmore, walks back into their lives and ghosts from the past emerge, propelling the play to its tragic conclusion. Peter McKintosh has built two full-size houses, evocative of the poor Hill District neighbourhood, whilst providing an intimate playing area in the back yards of the houses.

I was impressed by newcomer Aaron Pierre in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe last year, but his performance as King Hedley is on another level altogether; deeply emotional and passionate with an extraordinary charismatic presence. Martina Laird is terrific as Ruby, a nuanced characterisation that conveys the complexity of her relationships with her son and Elmore. This is Lenny Henry’s fifth role since his late career extension into stage acting, and he continues to impress. Elmore brings a lightness to what is one of the darker plays of the cycle, and Henry is well suited to this. Dexter Flanders as Mister and Cherrelle Skeete as Tonya both make excellent contributions, and the cast is completed by a fine performance from Leo Wringer as the eccentric neighbour Stool Pigeon, who hoards newspapers to record history and makes prophetic contributions like a Greek chorus.

It’s a bit too long at 3.5 hours, but Wilson’s dialogue and a set of riveting performances just about keep you in their grip in Nadia Fall’s superb production. It’s such a timeless piece, covering issues just as relevant and urgent today, and Stratford East is a great home for a work like this – an auspicious contribution to kick off the next phase in the life of ‘the people’s theatre’. As I left, I looked up at Joan Littlewood’s statue and she seemed to have a smile of approval on her face!

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This is Bertolt Brecht’s allegorical satire about the Nazi regime. Every character, scene and incident has a parallel and the title character is of course Adolf Hitler. He wrote it in exile during the war, but it wasn’t staged until thirteen years after it ended, and not in the US, as he intended, but in Germany itself. This expletive-laden new adaptation by Bruce Norris feels very fresh.

Ui runs a protection racket in Chicago (Germany) with designs on Cicero (Austria). He ‘buys’ local politician and trusted businessman Dogsborough (German President Hindenburg) en route to implementing his master plan to control the cauliflower trade! He has to deal with some of his own as well as those in his way, as his gang become disunited along the way. It’s littered with Shakespearean references and this production is also in part a satire on the seemingly equally irresistible rise of Donald Trump, which I thought I would find gratuitous but it was clever, with a light touch, and worked to the play’s advantage. This seems to be a big gig for director Simon Evans and he’s risen to the challenge with an inventive production with lots of audience engagement, including some playing roles!

Designer Peter Mackintosh has turned the theatre into a 30’s speakeasy, with seating on all sides on both levels, including cabaret-style tables on the bottom level and a stairway for the cast to move between levels. His period costumes are superb. Some of the casting is gender-blind, with Lucy Ellison making a superb Giri (Goring), Lucy Eaton excellent in three roles and Gloria Obianyo brilliant in four. Tom Edden playing no less than six, steals the show more than once, most notably as the actor giving Ui lessons. Lenny Henry has great presence as Ui, commanding the stage whenever he’s on it. It’s a uniformly excellent cast.

If you don’t know the play, it would be wise to mug up in advance, to get all the parallels and to get the most out of the evening, which is playful and entertaining without losing it’s satirical bite.

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August Wilson’s 1987 play ended up as part of a cycle of ten, each representing a decade of the 20th century black American experience (though not written in sequence). This one represents the 50’s and was the 3rd to be written (the last was written in 2005, the year of his death).

The play revolves around 50-something Troy, a dominant husband, brother and father who spent time in prison and is a bit fixated on death. Brother Gabriel has returned from the war deeply disturbed and Troy uses his compensation money to buy a home. He failed to make a career in baseball, the odds loaded heavily against black players at the time, but makes a decent living as a garbage man with his best friend Jim Bono. He falls out with his son Cory when he prevents him from perusing his own baseball ambitions. He’s unfaithful to his wife Rose and when his lover dies giving birth to his child, Rose takes the baby as her own. The first half is overlong and overwritten, but it picks up considerably after the interval. It’s an interesting enough family drama, but I’m not sure it really goes anywhere.

The chief reason for seeing it is as fine a set of performances as you could wish for. You can tell these actors have been on the road for three months as they are now inhabiting their characters seemingly effortlessly. Colin McFarlane is excellent as friend Bono and has great chemistry with Lenny Henry’s Troy. Tanya Moodie is wonderful as the put-upon wife who also plays off Henry brilliantly. Ian Charleston Award winner Ashley Zhangazha is simply terrific as Cory; a real one-to-watch. It’s just four years since Lenny Henry’s acting debut (baptism of fire) as Othello. Then he had great presence and a great speaking voice, but you could see him acting; now he’s the real deal – a hugely impressive, towering performance; you can’t take your eyes off him as he becomes Troy.

The action takes place in the front yard and on the porch of a two-story house (designed by Libby Watson) which dominates the stage of this small theatre, bringing further intensity to the drama. A welcome addition to the West End, which looks like it’s broadening its audience healthily.

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I haven’t seen an entire street on the Olivier stage sine John Gunter built part of the city of Bath for The Rivals in 1984. Bunny Christie’s street has an extra third storey on the houses and is a bit (intentionally) shabbier, but is spectacular nonetheless. It transforms to create an apartment block, shops, nightclub and a clinic.

There is much else to enjoy in Dominic Cooke’s NT debut, but it doesn’t really sparkle like other productions I’ve seen, most recently Propeller at Hampstead in 2010 and I’m not entirely sure why. The pacing is a bit uneven; one minute it’s zipping along, then appears to have ground to a halt. I don’t know whether it has been cut, but it came in at just 2 hours 10 mins with a 20 minute interval, so I suspect it has – though not noticeably.

I liked the idea of acting out Egeon’s opening speech describing how he lost his wife and twin sons (and their twin servants). The more frenetic scenes are given a ‘keystone cops’ style that somehow made them seem fresh though still appropriate for the material. The Abbey has become the Abbey Clinic and one half of both twins end up ‘sectioned’ there after a particularly slick chase scene involving an ambulance driving onto the stage! I also like the idea that the twins have different accents, having been brought up in different places, though Shakespeare didn’t write any lines like ‘why are you speaking funny?’ to support this, so there’s even more disbelief to be suspended than usual! Despite the comedy that preceded it, the closing scene was much more moving than I’ve ever seen it before. I wasn’t sure about the band playing familiar songs in a foreign language at first, but I warmed to it.

After what seemed like a hesitant start, the acting was first-rate. The twins are well matched, particularly Lucien Msamati and Daniel Poyser as the Dromio’s. Lenny Henry has as much presence and as good a  speaking voice as he did in Othello, but is much more relaxed in a comic role where he is able to use his full range of facial expressions. Claudie Blakely’s Adriana and Michelle Terry’s Luciana are deliciously chavvy creations.

So a good rather than great Comedy of Errors, but one I’m glad I saw.

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