It’s been forty-eight hours since I left the Duchess Theatre and I’m struggling to find the words or enthusiasm to write this review. It’s no reflection on my enthusiasm in general – have you seen the arts section lately? – I just can’t seem to give this play the attention it deserves, according to many other critics, anyway.
Upon hearing that Fences, one of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle works, was coming to the West End, I was very excited. As a previous student of American culture and keen enthusiast on America in general, the plight of a poor African-American in the North was just the tonic I needed from the plethora of musicals suffocating the West End. My enthusiasm was dampened somewhat when I heard that Lenny Henry would be taking the central role of Troy Maxson; whilst I appreciate that many would disagree with me on this, I just don’t find him funny. Sorry. Never have. However I booked my ticket with an open mind – perhaps in drama I would like him better?
Fences focuses on Troy, a fifty-something rubbish collector who struggles to provide for his family, on whom he takes out his frustrations at life, particularly his failure to cross into Major League Baseball, as at the time the colour barrier hadn’t been broken in the sport. Much time is spent drinking on the porch and castigating his son for attempting to pursue a career in sport rather than a safer tradesman position. What occurs in the following two hours is an exploration of the African-American male in the Northern states and the effects problems they faced had on their families.
…an excellent examination of the African-American’s emasculation…
The play is an excellent examination of the African-American’s emasculation catalysed by mass South-North migration. A lack of job opportunity, social mobility and acceptance in the community placed extraordinary pressure on the African-American family, especially the ability of the male to provide for his family. This tension is beautifully explored in the play, as Tanya Moodie’s endearing Rose attempts to maintain her position as the resilient backbone of the family whilst keeping her marriage alive. The development of Rose throughout is one of the joys of this production, as the character really comes into her own.
Henry is a jovial and carefree Troy; drinking on the porch with co-worker Bono, the comedic expressions on Henry’s face can surely be seen from the back of the dress circle. This early first half allows Henry to exhibit his comedic repertoire, with expressions, noises and voices being used to great effect. Come the second half, however, and Henry’s acting comes into its own, as Troy sinks deeper and darker into a pit of self-loathing, damaging those around him.
…we wanted to rush to protect those around him…
The sparse and desolate set could have been the Old South as easily as 20th Century Pittsburgh, effectively highlighting the migration of not only black people but their culture and way of life. The sporadic appearances of Gabriel, Troy’s war-damaged brother, are played to soul-destroying perfection by Ako Mitchell, whose mentally disturbed Gabriel seems saner and saner as the play goes on, but only by comparison. It is these appearances that bring a sharp clarity to the play, as Troy is highlighted to be rude, selfish and completely ignorant to the needs of others.
Henry captured the essential character of Troy extremely well – we hated him, we felt pity for him, we wanted to rush to protect those around him. Perhaps there was a tad too much comedy and not enough dramatic sincerity, however this contrast in both the play and Henry’s portrayal made the second half’s dramatic impact all the more effective. Brilliantly staged and beautifully cast, this production is really very good and I’m pleased I sat down and gave it the attention it rightly deserves.