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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Fences
Duchess Theatre Summer 2013

It has been a real delight in recent years to watch stand-up comic Lenny Henry emerge as a stage actor of significant range, presence and power, and exciting to now see him confirm his stature in this August Wilson drama. 

Fences is the 1950s entry in African-American playwright Wilson's cycle of one play for each decade of the twentieth century and, like the others, it tells a compelling human story while unforcedly reflecting the broader black experience of the period. 

Troy is a middle-aged man who has worked his way up to what might be called the lower middle class – a solid if menial civil service job, a house and security for his family. In an unspoken reference to the breakthrough of school integration a couple of years before the play is set, Troy gets a promotion and is the first black man in a job previously reserved for whites. 

But, unable to revel in how far he's come, much less imagine going further (Could the 1950s have guessed at what was coming in the 1960s?), Troy can only feel what he has under constant threat, his need to be vigilant in defending it symbolised by the fence he's building around his house. 

With tragic irony, the weight of all this responsibility drives Troy to violate his own defences, seeking relief from the pressure with another woman and sabotaging his son's attempt to rise even further. 

Lenny Henry fully inhabits this man who is not naturally loving but internalises all the responsibilities of husband and father because that's his job, who is capable of deep and uninhibited laughter as well as violent anger and cruelty, who has the imagination to weave tall tales of irresistible delightfulness but can't see his son's potential – who desperately wants to do right and does almost everything wrong.

It is a role that approaches tragic stature, and Henry has not only the talent but the presence and gravitas to carry it. While one watches and enjoys this masterful performance the thought inescapably arises that it is not too early to begin thinking about Henry's King Lear. 

Not merely (merely!) a creator of fully rounded and sympathetic characters and stories with larger resonances, August Wilson is a dramatic poet to rival Tennessee Williams, and high among the pleasures Fences offers are the many moments when characters are moved to express themselves with soul-lifting eloquence – Troy in his tall tales and in his visions of Death hovering just outside his defences, his wife on the sacrifices and devotion that are part of marriage, and just about every other character, sometimes in extended set pieces, sometimes in brief images whose perfection stops your breath. 

Under Paulette Randall's expert direction, the entire cast is first-rate, with particular praise due to Tanya Moodie as the wife, Ashley Zhangazha as the son and Colin McFarlane as a drinking buddy.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review -  Fences - Duchess Theatre 2013
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