On the other side of the fence

Fences

Malvern Festival Theatres

****

It's hard to imagine Lenny Henry without a smirk, let alone as a gruff, contemptuous anti-hero. 

Yet taking on the lead role in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play by American playwright August Wilson transforms him into a stage presence and a serious actor, far removed for the personality that has become synonymous with Comic Relief. 

It's not the first time Henry has dipped his acting toes into this kind of solemn drama and a previous role as Othello in 2009 secured him praise but also criticism that maybe he was “too nice to be tragic”. 

Maybe this time around it's the material, or maybe it's just having more experience under his belt, but Henry is now able to make the audience totally forget his comic persona and believe that this 6ft 5ins hulk of man is the embattled often bullying and sometimes charming Troy Maxson. 

The play itself is a wonderful snapshot of African-American life in the 1950s. A kitchen-sink drama in many ways but with a poignant, sentimental undercurrent of the struggles, loves and duties of a Black garbageman, whose relationships with his sons, best friend, brother and wife are all called into question. 

Fences, written in 1985 but set in the 1950s, is the most well-known and successful of Wilson's ten plays, called the Pittsburgh Cycle, which detail life in an African-American neighbourhood through each decade of the 20th Century. 

Through the play, we slowly build up a picture of how hard-working Troy has overcome a violent father, stint in prison and failed baseball career for a stable life with wife Rose (an outstanding Tanya Moodie). Whether this is enough for him is gradually revealed. 

At the start, we see Troy's reward at the end of each week collecting garbage is to drink gin out of a bottle in his front yard with his close pal Jim Bono (played by scene-stealing Colin McFarlane) before cosying up to Rose for the night and trying to complete a new fence around his home. 

But there's constant fractious run-ins with most of the men in his life - his eldest son Lyons (Peter Bankolé) from a previous relationship, who is an unemployed musician and constantly turning up for handouts; his youngest son Cory (Ashley Zhangazha), who he bullies into giving up an opportunity for a football scholarship; and his brother Gabriel (Terence Maynard), who is suffering mental health problems. 

What's exceptional about this play is its subtlety. Stories that Troy and Jim tell end up have a greater meaning towards the close of the play - like what makes a man sing the Blues? and why we build fences around a house?

There's also some wonderful speeches. When Troy explains to his youngest son how he doesn't have to "like him" because he is his father is particularly poignant, as is his recollection of why he ran away from home at the age of 14. 

It's a small cast of seven characters, but every single one of the actors gives a strong performance that is worthy for such a rich, creative piece of American literature. To 13-04-13.
Alison Brinkworth

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