Writer: August Wilson
Director: Paulette Randall
Reviewer: Maggie Constable
Recently very much a part of the Comic Relief Red Nose Day fundraising fun, Lenny Henry has also been seen on the West End stage in Othello, a rôle he performed with great presence and utter believability. In Fences, Theatre Royal Bath’s production at Milton Keynes this week, he takes on the part of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s 1987 drama, thus showing his versatility and just how much he has matured into the heavier rôles. Mark you, it is often said that comedy and tragedy are closely intertwined.
Fences is considered to be one of the great US dramas of the last century, a winner of several awards including a Pulitzer Prize. The play is very much in the tradition of O’Neill and forms part of a cycle of ten plays about the African American situation. Indeed, Wilson was born in an immigrant neighbourhood in Pennsylvania to an African American mother just before the start of civil rights movement in the U.S so he lived very much of what is recounted in this piece.
Set in Pittsburgh between the Korean and Vietnam wars, Fences recounts the story of Troy, once a very talented baseball player, who feels he has been the victim of policies of segregation and thus resents a world which he considers has denied him every chance possible. He believes he could have made it were it not for prejudice and, his dreams shattered, he turns his anger on his family, in particular on his devoted and supportive wife and his sports-mad son, Cory. His dissatisfaction with his lot takes him further and he reaps what he sows…….
Lenny Henry really brings out the humanity and the flaws in Troy’s character, even if, at times, the audience does not take him as seriously as they might, perhaps because the humour in the first half in particular reminds us that this is the comedian we know and love. Henry interacts superbly with Tanya Moodie as his wife, Rose, played so convincingly and sensitively. Not so believable is his relationship with his youngest son, Cory, performed by Ashley Zhanghaza. The latter’s portrayal seems a little stilted and understated and therefore the big break up between father and son does not seem quite as emotional as one might expect. Some of this, however, may be due to the writing where we have a long, oft humourous and slow-paced first half followed by a rush of high drama in the second.
Colin McFarlane is wonderful as Troy’s longtime pal Bono and he has a very genuine feel about him. He holds the accent better than most, too. A subtle performance. Terence Maynard gives us the disturbed brother, Gabe, and is careful not to overdo it, although his last scene was questionable, but enough said for fear of spoiling it.
The cast work well together and certainly all work very hard, especially with a fixed and pretty much unchanging set. The play has many themes and much to say about the African American dilemma, although the message sometimes gets a bit lost and there seems a slight lack of passion. That said, there is something about this production and the story that keeps you engaged and involved and it is definitely well worth going to see. A discussion-provoking piece.
Runs until 23 March
Picture: Nobby Clark