Michael Coveney: Lenny roars while Regent’s Park goes up in smoke

Many years before Lenny Henry made his great breakthrough on British television on the talent show New Faces, then on the wacky children’s show Tiswas, I used to love another Lenny, Lenny the Lion, a shy puppet whose catchphrase whenever praised or even greeted by ventriloquist Terry Hall was, “Aw, don’t embawass me.”

Lenny Henry and Tanya Moodie in Fences
Lenny Henry and Tanya Moodie in Fences
© Nobby Clark

I suppose Lenny the Lion must have been a distant, much diluted relation of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, the joke being that real lions don’t roar. Well, that goes out of the window with the new Lenny the Lion, Lenny Henry, whose performance as Troy Maxson in Fences at the Duchess Theatre is one of the fiercest, and most leonine, you will ever see.

And on seeing it for the first time last night, I am suffused with regret that I never saw Henry’s Othello for Northern Broadsides. There were several reasons for this hapless omission, not least a feeling that the rave reviews must have been exaggerated and that an actor so inexperienced in classical theatre could not possibly scale the required heights, let alone deal with the verse.

I didn’t much like his performance in The Comedy of Errors at the National, but I didn’t much like the production, either, which got off to a disastrously slow and indulgent start and involved far too much eye-poppingly enforced hilarity between badly-bewigged Lenny and another fine actor, Lucian Msamati, as his not very identical twin slave.

Both “twins” are back on the London stage, Msamati appearing to devastating effect across town in the other five-star black theatre event of the season, Rufus Norris’s revival of The Amen Corner at the National. But it’s Henry who has really set the cat among the classical pigeons… his performance as Troy surely opens the door on so many other great roles in the repertoire, and not just Othello (a return visit would be much appreciated, by me at least) but, I’d suggest, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and King Lear for starters.

He’s the right age, the right size and it looks as though he’s worked really hard on his vocal and other technical resources. Troy Maxson is a monster role, with more words to speak than Othello. Adrian Lester is currently a very fine Othello at the NT, but he’s a light baritone, not a thundering bass; he’s Denzel Washington to Henry’s James Earl Jones. And I suspect that Henry has even this over Earl Jones, who created the role of Troy: he’s fearless in exposing the unsympathetic in a character.

It’s what you might call a smoking performance at the Duchess, and there’s never much smoke without fire. The truth of that is apparent, too, in Regent’s Park, where the Open Air barbecue grill was working overtime on Monday night at the opening of Pride and Prejudice, with huge hot clouds of the grey stuff filling the picnic area and blotting out the sun.

Fine by me, but here’s the thing: anyone who actually wants to light a teeny-weeny little cigarette has to work their way through this smouldering pall in order to leave the premises entirely and stand like a naughty child on the pavement outside, puffing away in disgrace.

This is Health and Safety gone mad, to such an extent I’m surprised that Richard Littlejohn hasn’t yet had a go about it in his charmingly bonkers and reactionary “Essex Man” Daily Mail column. Perhaps now he will.

I’m not a smoker – haven’t been for over thirty years, though I don’t mind a cigar twice a year – but my guest on Monday night was. Before the show, we bought a drink at the covered alfresco bar and sat outside on the walkway. The minute she lit up, a jobsworth appeared to inform us that there was no smoking allowed anywhere on the premises before directing us towards the afore-mentioned smoke-filled area in order to leave by the back door. Open Air Theatre? More like a high security prison.

Among other gross lunacies of the week, I see this morning that smug novelist Jeanette Winterson has been signed up to write an accessible “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. I do hope Lenny Henry never stoops to appear in it. On Monday morning I sat in a Paddington primary school to watch an excellent Winter’s Tale workshop with a professional storyteller and two dozen nine year-olds, not one of whom had English as a first language.

They got the story, and they got the verse, and they spoke quite a few lines of it as they joined in the two-hour session. Next week, they will go and see an edited version of Shakespeare’s original text – no re-writes – in the place of work that has originated this admirable, uncondescending project.

What is that place, exactly? Why, the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. I should have warned them about the smoking ban, I suppose, but I’m sure they will all have a great time despite the rules and despite the lack of the yet to be re-titled Winterson’s Tale. You couldn’t make it up, as Littlejohn would say.