Tag Archives: Lenny Henry

Platters and Matters


The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 9th September, 2014


Initially a sitcom on BBC Radio 4, Rudy’s Rare Records gets the full stage treatment in this new incarnation at Birmingham’s REP theatre. Set in an old-school, old-fashioned and mouldering record shop, it is mostly about family dynamics, especially the relationships of men across the generations. Lenny Henry is Adam, a middle-aged divorcee with middle-class pretensions who returns to Handsworth to care for his aged and ailing father Rudy (Larrington Walker) but lifelong tensions are never far from the surface. Add to the mix, Adam’s son Richie (Joivan Wade) who is dropping out of university and the scene is set for some lambasting rows – with some very funny putdowns and mickey-taking. Danny Robins’s script is rich with one-liners and sparkling with wit, and he shares them out equally between his main three and the other characters. We meet Tasha (Natasha Godfrey) perhaps the world’s only black Goth, florist Clifton (Jeffery Kissoon) and Rudy’s on-and-off-again girlfriend Doreen (Lorna Gayle). It’s a fine ensemble of very strong performances.

There is an almost constant accompanying soundtrack, performed live by an excellent quartet in the backroom of Rudy’s shop and often the characters break out into song – the songs I remember from the jukebox in my dad’s Dudley pub. Nostalgia is a theme: how can record shops like this compete with iTunes and Amazon, the question is asked, ‘when we pay tax!’ The script has a satirical edge and dark notes of political and social commentary. We have survived racism, they declare, but now the old hatred is rising again only this time it’s called ‘migration’.  Comments like this give the setting a reality but the emphasis is on the personal rather than the political.  We can’t help liking these people because of the fun they provide so anything that threatens or upsets them from outside there little bubble, these unseen off-stage villains, we are immediately against. Within the bubble the inter-character conflicts touch us too: There is a smashing version of No, No, No by the frustrated and heartbroken Doreen.

The emphasis though is on the fun – they’re a lovely bunch with whom to spend some time. It takes a long time for the plot to get going – there is talk of developers wishing to buy up all the local businesses, Rudy is defiantly neglecting his debts – but all the tension is packed into the last ten minutes of a lengthy first act. The second act is mainly a rooftop fundraising concert, with Lenny Henry’s character stepping up and giving us a treat of a rendition of The Israelites.

Music is of course the raison d’etre of the shop and becomes the glue that binds the community and the family together. It’s no surprise there is a happy resolution to all the conflicts – this is still sitcom territory, after all. On the whole, the show is a joyous affair that makes you laugh out loud. So what if you can’t catch every single word of Rudy’s patois – the tone and delivery are clear enough (one of the characters observes that Rudy’s appearance on local TV had to be subtitled!) – and there are heart-warming moments that keep on the right side of sentimentality. Henry, Walker and Wade make a volatile but lovable family, and they are supported by some fine comic playing by Kissoon, Gayle and Godfrey.  A mix of Brummie and Jamaican culture, it is fundamentally a very British piece – we see ‘British values’ (if such things exist!) in action.  It’s not just an old record shop at threat in today’s society but a way of life.

With a tighter dramatic structure, the play would really hit home, but for a laugh-a-minute, ultimately touching night out, you’d be hard-pressed to find better.

Unlike father unlike son: Lenny Henry and Larrington Walker

Unlike father unlike son: Lenny Henry and Larrington Walker Photo: Robert Day

Fenced In


Festival Theatre, Malvern, Wednesday 10th April, 2013

Troy Maxson, sanitation worker, husband, father, bully and raconteur likes to hold court in the yard of his Pittsburgh home.  It is 1957 and he wins a minor victory at work, becoming the first black man to be promoted from loading garbage onto the back of a truck to driving the truck himself.  This is the ‘civil rights’ element of August Wilson’s plot, but the remarkable thing, historically, is the playwright’s body of work itself.  Blue collar black folks airing their grievances, revealing their personal lives, laughing, loving, fighting – all of that is here in a powerful drama to rival Arthur Miller.

Now a period piece, the play still chimes with the present.  Wife Rose bemoans the lack of aspiration she sees in the community, people never realising their lot in life could and should be improved.  Troy’s fatal flaw (he is ‘one for the ladies’) is not a rare trait and, more generally, we can all identify with that destructive impulse, when we go ahead and do what we oughtn’t, just to shake things up.  Troy seems unable to settle for what he has: at work this is to his credit; at home it is nothing but detrimental.

Lenny Henry is blisteringly good as Troy.  His experience as a stand-up brings life to Troy’s tall stories.  The comic timing is perfect.  Henry also brings depth to the character, in a multi-faceted performance that is touching and powerful.

Tanya Moodie is excellent as wife Rose, able to stand her ground.  We feel Troy’s tragic fall but it is Rose who gets our sympathy.  There is a shift in the power structure of the relationship as she finds a way to accommodate disaster, while Troy shuns his youngest son out of little more than stubborn pride.

Ashley Zhangazha is son Cory, whose dreams of professional (American) football are trampled by his dad because Troy’s own ambitions of baseball were never realised.  ‘Swinging for the fences’ is no longer encouraged.   He and Henry share some tense moments.  Colin McFarlane brings out Troy’s more waggish aspects as best friend Jim Bono – their eventual alienation, understated, is also touching.  Troy’s fence around the yard is complete, shutting some people out and keeping some people in.

Paulette Randall’s direction is unfussy, giving the characters room to live.  Shifts between humour and tension are handled extremely well.  The play ends with a non-naturalistic moment as brother Gabriel puffs ineffectually into his trumpet, as a warning to St Peter that the time of Judgment is at hand.  We are suddenly plunged into the broken mind of this mentally impaired war veteran with a metal plate in his head.  The lighting changes. Drums pound.  He dances.  It’s an incongruous finish, and a little jarring.  Perhaps a more downbeat ending would be more in keeping; I don’t know.   It’s what people were buzzing about as we filed out of the auditorium.

This quirky bit aside, Fences is a rewarding piece, a convincing portrayal of a strong man brought low by his own actions – and that is the essence of tragedy.

 lenny henry