Fences is Lenny Henry’s first stage appearance in a non-Shakespearean play and consequently a transition from the comparative safety of a known vehicle into straight acting, and in a piece which is not familiar to the majority of audiences who will flock to see him. So the first thing to say is that Lenny Henry is good, and good in that way that after about 30 seconds you forget it’s him and become engrossed in Troy Maxson, a garbage truck worker from Pittsburgh. Troy is a big man – the magnetic core of a fractured family, centre of a social circle, natural leader at the depot, not afraid to stand up for all his rights at work, at home and in matters of the heart. He is at once a lovable husband who dutifully hands over his wages each week to wife Rose (Tanya Moodie) and a bully to both his sons.
Set in 1957 in Wilsons’ birth town of Pittsburgh Fences is one of the playwrights celebrated cycle of 10 plays, each one set in a different decade of the 20th century. Wilson is lauded in his home country along with Williams, Miller and O’Neil as one of the great American playwrights and Troy Maxson is up there with Willy Lomax, James Tyrone and Stanley Kowalski. A man who fascinates, is fun to have a drink with on a Friday night but to whom you wave goodbye with relief that he is not your father/husband/lover. If its sounds like hard work to watch, it isn’t. This is slice of real life and as such has moments of humour, laugh out loud joking around alongside the weariness of getting through the working week.
Although there are elements of how segregation and discrimination have created these ugly fissures in Troy’s character this is not an issues play; it is a drama which presents each layer of this complex man so that his perverse decisions make sense to us. It’s not a perfect gem like Death of a Salesman or Streetcar but Troy’s family and friends (engagingly played by this small, talented company) are each a character in their own right, so that by the end you feel that you have been watching a family in the round, fully brought to life from the pages of their story by experienced director Paulette Randall (a full theatre and TV CV includes the recent credit of Associate Director on the Olympic opening ceremony). The production details are to be applauded too, with much credit to designer Libby Watson’s set and costumes as she recreates the poverty, heat and dust of Hill District.
So Lenny Henry pulls it off. Whether you loved him or loathed him as Lenny Henry the stand up, and star of some truly rubbish radio drama, draw a line under that. He has, and if he is still learning some of the craft of his new career as he plumbs the depths of human emotion bear with him - this is a powerful and entertaining night out at the theatre.