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Fences (tour - Cambridge, Arts Theatre)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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I would imagine that, for most people in the audience for August Wilson's play Fences, the Pittsburgh setting is unfamiliar. The story, that of generational clashes and thwarted ambitions, is not. The main character is Troy, who works as what we would call a dustman but once harboured dreams of being a professional baseball player. But this is 1957 in industrial Pennsylvania, and segregation is rife.

At one time in a slightly chequered career Troy fathered Lyons. Now he is married to Rose and lives with her and their son Cory in a house which they own (quite a rarity for a Black family at that time). Troy's long-standing friend is Bono, a man who has learnt when to rock with life's blows and how to keep confrontation to when it really matters. Troy's brother was a wartime casualty, left with only half a brain but getting by on fraternal sympathy and understanding.

When it comes to Troy's sons, however, understanding is in very short supply. Rose has to mediate, as one suspects she's spent most of her marriage doing. All this is conveyed in successive torrents of words, punctuated by action, aided in Paulette Randall's production by a fine set by Libby Watson and some remarkable performances.

Lenny Henry's Troy is a dominating figure, totally credible in his mixture of ambitions, somewhat devious means of part-achieving these and desire to exercise his rights both at home and at work. He's matched by Tanya Moodie as Rose, whose apparent placidity hides an enormous reservoir of good sense; a woman of whom people can take advantage but who has a fragile capacity to be hurt. The two boys – Lyons a bit of a chancer, Cory more forthright – are well contrasted by Peter Bankolé and Ashley Zhangazha.

Bono is almost the chorus to this gloss on classic Greek tragedy, one in which the protagonist succumbs to faults within himself more than to external circumstances. Colin McFarlane builds the character slowly, from something of a sidekick into a man who distinguishes what might be right from what is certainly wrong with understanding but without emphasising blame. If you wanted an alternative title for the play, All My Sons would fit admirably. Wilson stands comparison with Miller.


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