Theatre Review: Fences - Duchess Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Duchess Theatre

Review by Emma Curry

Wednesday 26th June 2013: Lenny Henry clearly isn’t shy about taking on challenging roles. Having tackled Shakespeare (as Antipholus in The Comedy of Errors at the National and, most notoriously, as Othello, a performance that shocked the critics and reinvented him as a ‘serious’ stage actor), he is now performing in the West End as Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Fences, a role previously made famous by James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington. No pressure then.

As the curtain rose on Libby Watson’s intricately dusty wooden set, however, it was almost instantly clear that this role might even trump these other highly-acclaimed performances to be Henry’s best yet. Lounging alongside his friend Bono on payday, tipsily spinning a yarn about a stolen watermelon, Henry instantly embodied Troy’s self-assured, easy charm, whilst simultaneously hinting at the raging frustration he feels at the circumscription of his life. The play is set entirely on the front porch of the house Troy shares with his wife and children, and many scenes revolve around his laborious construction of a fence to surround his property (whether it’s to keep his family in or various interlopers out is a question raised and then left dramatically hanging as the action progresses). It’s clear that Troy feels cut off from the world around him in various ways: having spent his childhood struggling with an abusive father, and then served fifteen years in prison for robbery, he also narrowly missed out on the opportunity to play baseball professionally and instead now works as a garbage collector. He drinks too much on Fridays, shuns his eldest son Lyons’s music gigs, prevents his younger son Cory from playing football for his college team, and manipulates his mentally-ill brother Gabe in order to profit from his disability benefits. 

It is testament to Henry’s skill as an actor that he can present all of these sides to Troy without ever losing the audience’s interest in his narrative. Whilst Troy is by no means a likeable character, the nuances of his history and his interactions with his family members felt devastatingly truthful, and remained gripping throughout. Indeed, the moments where Troy’s anger fully broke out were utterly mesmerizing: Henry has a commanding stage presence and incredibly powerful delivery, whether railing at the restrictions placed upon him by his race (at one point he tells his son a black man needs to be twice as good at sport in order to get chosen for a team); or, in a striking scene towards the end of the play, goading Death to come and seize him, baseball bat in hand.

This production is by no means Henry’s alone, however. Tanya Moodie is equally fantastic as Troy’s wife, Rose: what could have been a one-note, ‘downtrodden’ role instead becomes a fascinating study of a woman just as constrained by society and circumstance as her husband. As Rose, Moodie is in turn supportive, sassy, vulnerable, despairing, strong, and stoical, in love with her husband but simultaneously pragmatic, and openly aware of his deficiencies. A scene between the pair in the second half where an indiscretion is revealed was truly compelling, and played perfectly. The other members of the cast are similarly strong: Colin McFarlane is jovial and jocular as Troy’s friend Bono, a frequent (and much-needed) source of light relief, whilst Ashley Zhangazha expertly captures the emotional nuances of Cory’s complex relationship with his father, moving from initial reluctant obedience to heated and even violent defiance as he grows older.

Whilst the text of the play itself at times makes its point a little long-windedly (the final scene in particular felt much more drawn out than it needed to be), this show is absolutely worth seeing for the performances. Henry commands our attention throughout and proves, once again, that he is a theatrical force to be reckoned with. I, for one, look forward to seeing what his next challenge will be.

Four stars ✭✭✭✭

Venue: Duchess Theatre, 3-5 Catherine Street, London WC2B 5LA
Dates: 19th June – 14th September
Times: Monday – Saturday 7.30pm; Thursday and Saturday matinees 2.30pm
Press Night: Wednesday 26th June, 7pm
Tickets: £20 - £52.50