Lenny Henry’s transition from a likeable TV comic of little substance to a stage actor of undeniable gravitas is complete.
He first trod the boards in 2009, as Shakespeare’s Othello – theatre’s most famous black hero, but not actually the most demanding role of the play (Othello’s nemesis Iago has more lines).
However, Troy Maxson, the bitter, lyrical protagonist of August Wilson’s great American tragedy ‘Fences’ is something else entirely. A mercurial monolith with the lion’s share of the script, Troy is an embittered ex-baseball player who sourly turns his back on his family’s love, yet occasionally blindsides us with the poetic outpourings of his soul.
Henry rises to the challenge admirably – but not, for me, quite enough to transcend Paulette Randell’s slightly leaden-footed production. He is entrancing as the damaged-but-soulful Troy, who sings about his dead dog Blue, spins fantastic yarns around his encounters with death and the devil, and banters easily with best friend Jim.
But I’m not sure he nails the other Troy, his darker side. Henry is more morose than threatening, and while that’s a legitimate enough interpretation of the character, his glum delivery occasionally feels like it does a disservice to the play’s soaring language.
Nonetheless, it’s one of the truly titanic stage roles, and Henry indubitably pulls it off, which pretty much suggests he can now handle anything the theatre throws at him. And a terrific ensemble supports him, with Tanya Moodie particularly wonderful as Troy’s wife Rose, a woman whose radiant decency shines a light into Troy’s deep flaws.
A little staid and a little down at heel, this is a fairly modest revival of a great play. But on those terms, it’s a success.
By Andrzej Lukowski