‘Fences’: Lenny Henry playing Troy Maxson at the Cambridge Arts Theatre

Lenny Henry was outstanding as the troubled family patriarch, Troy Maxson, in August Wilson’s play, ‘Fences’ last night.  He appears to go from strength to strength as a character actor and lead, not in the least overshadowed by his illustrious predecessors in the role; James Earl Jones and Denzil Washington.

Troy, a black man who was denied his chance at baseball stardom by the racism prevalent in American sport post-war, has become an embittered refuse collector.  His bitterness leads him to destroy his family around him.  Denying his son, Cory [played by Ashley Zhanghazha] the sporting chance he has, and eventually even alienating his loving wife, Rose, and his great friend, Bono.

It sounds bleak. And in some ways it is.  But apart from being the gripping unraveling of a tortured man, it is also shot through with affectionate humour and loving banter.  It says much of Lenny Henry’s new won status that even in the funniest moments you never think, “Oh, here he goes being a comedian again.”

It also doesn’t descend into a neat scenario, where everything turns out for the best.  It remains hard and true to the end.  Rose, a woman who channeled her life through Troy, becomes strong and independent again.  Cory finds another vocation, and even Troy’s brother, war damaged and cheated on, finds a form of salvation at the end.

All the cast were outstanding, especially Tanya Moodie as Rose, and Colin McFarlane as Bono.  But Lenny Henry’s tour de force performance left the stage feeling somehow emptier on the few occasions when he wasn’t there.  Incredible, impassioned, bawdy, and drawing an electrical response from his exchanges with other cast members, Lenny Henry has moved, I feel, from a good serious actor to a seriously good actor!

Moving to the Duchess Theatre in London, from 26th June to 14th September, I will be seeing it again and would recommend it to anyone.


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