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Review Round-Up: Lenny Henry shines in Paulette Randall's Fences

The Theatre Royal Bath's production of August Wilson's Fences directed by Paulette Randall opened at the Duchess Theatre this week (26 June 2013). Starring Lenny Henry, it runs until 14 September 2013

Lenny Henry and Tanya Moodie
© Nobby Clark

Michael Coveney

Lenny Henry gives a truly outstanding – dare I say it, truly great – performance… Paulette Randall's production, which certainly matches the British premiere in 1990 starring Yaphet Kotto as Troy and Adrian Lester as Cory, gives Henry the best possible support. He's buttressed not only by Moodie and the excellent work of Zhangazha and Bankole, but also by Colin McFarlane as his neighbour and fellow worker Jim Bono… Wilson's plays can sometimes be hard work, in a good way… Henry keeps the play alive with his non-stop comic joshing, perfect timing, physical lightness and growling natural authority. It's the must-see performance in town, and the silhouetted image of him wielding a baseball bat and inviting all-comers is one that I shall not easily forget.

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

…he's on superb form in a part that has previously been filled by James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington… Henry finds richness and depth in the role: at first Troy looks like a jovial boozehound, but we gradually see his complexity… Director Paulette Randall locates the play's emotional core. The relationships are all convincingly presented, and there's exuberant work from Colin McFarlane as Troy's drinking buddy Jim Bono and Ako Mitchell as his mentally disturbed brother, Gabriel… Running two and three-quarter hours, Fences is dense and unsettling. It's brave to programme such a meaty, daunting piece during the summer months. But it is worth seeing for Henry's immense performance, which switches compellingly from humour to fury and from hopefulness to piercing disillusionment.

Michael Billington

…Henry confirms he is an actor of massive presence and emotional power… It's a far from flawless play… But Wilson's achievement is to create a towering character full of contradictions… Henry gives us the man in all his rich complexity… Even better is Henry's capacity for stillness, the sure sign of a first-rate actor… Paulette Randall's finely calibrated production also contains good performances from Tanya Moodie as Troy's loyal but unfulfilled wife, from Ashley Zhangazha… and from Ako Mitchell… It's a play that has all the virtues, and a few of the failings, of the 50s era in which it is set. But it also reminds us of the emotional candour that is the hallmark of American theatre and elicits from Henry a performance that suggests the big roles in the dramatic canon are now his for the taking.

Jane Shilling

…What you don't expect is to find Henry entirely unrecognisable in the physically and morally immense character he embodies… Wilson's account of the fragmentation of a man and his family is set to a haunting blues score by Delroy Murray, and Randall's beautifully paced direction of this sprawling drama echoes the narrative pace of the blues: expansive, but urgent. The cast is uniformly excellent. Crystal Mills as Troy's seven-year-old byblow, Raynell, deserves a special mention for her sweet voice and unaffected charm, while Henry's performance as Troy would not be possible without the support of Tanya Moodie as the long-suffering matriarch, Rose, and Colin McFarlane's brilliantly mercurial depiction of Jim… What a pleasure to see the transformation of a somewhat ill-at-ease comedian into the epic tragedian he was, clearly, always meant to be.

Paul Taylor

…Brought to life in a beautifully judged and bruisingly powerful revival by Paulette Randall… Henry and Colin McFarlane splendidly get the measure of the bantering rhythms, joshing braggadocio and the vernacular poetry in Wilson's dauntingly wordy script. Henry brings a strong personal warmth to the part but also forcefully exposes Troy's discomfiting and unlovely contradictions as the betrayal of his wife and his brain-damaged brother come to light. Authentically inhabiting the character's body language as well as his speech habits, he swings with compelling conviction between robust playful humour, dogged emotional denial, eruptive fury and the kind of defiance that periodically makes Troy taunt the figure of Death with a baseball bat. The dramaturgy is conventional and clunky; the performance cements Henry's status as a serious actor.

Libby Purves
The Times

…Henry joins the ranks of great stage actors… Henry is magnificent… Under Paulette Randall's careful, honest direction, the theme in Fences is fatherhood… Tanya Moodie is a marvellous study in humour, sensuality and firm character… He has terrific support: Peter Bankolé as a wide-boy son from an earlier liaison, and Colin McFarlane the amiable Bono who vainly tries to dissuade Troy from cheating on Rose… Henry's instinctive comic edge can draw sympathy even to Troy's worst behaviour, so we love him despite it. But he can also conjure deep pain with the briefest furrowing of his brow. Finally, when he is gone and two of his children sing his old blues lullaby, you shiver at the sadness and redemption.