By August Wilson
Duchess Theatre, 3-5 Catherine Street, London WC2B 5LA
To September 14
'Actor's Corner' visits the theater, as James Carroll Jordan and Maxine Howe go fencing...
I saw August Wilson's Fences with Virginia Schultz's (yes The American's own Virginia of Cellar Talk and food critic) sidekick Maxine Howe at the Duchess and have to say, I loved it. Completely loved it.
Especially Lenny Henry's staggeringly magnificent performance. Maybe the way to true stardom is via standup. Who knows? I think I may do a bit of standup and see what happens to my career.
I took Maxine along as my wife Jan seems to just go to sleep during plays and start snoring. As Max and I go back decades as co-workers and friends I thought she would enjoy the night and add some interesting insight to my reviewing the play. To my surprise, not ten minutes into the show and Max was gently snoring away on my shoulder. It seems she had a big lunch party and a bit of wine. (Another reason not to drink during the day I say.) Well, I woke my sleeping beauty and cautioned her not to snore so loudly. To my surprise, the ten minute snooze seemed to have given her a good jolt of energy and she sat up and watched the rest of the play without making a peep. Well, almost… She did sing along with the incidental music every time she recognized a tune. I didn't have the heart to stop her.
Now as loyal readers of my regular slot "Actors Corner" you all are perfectly aware that I myself have problems with going to the theater. I like seeing a complete play just as much as the rest of us. But my backside doesn't. Why don't they make a comfortable seat in theatres I ask? Or rather my bottom does. And it shows just how impressive and good Fences was that I happily sat through the whole two hours and three quarters with rapt attention. It did help that a running theme throughout the play was baseball. And I just love baseball. Even more than theater. It is just that I have a talent for theatre more than I did for baseball. As I fidgeted in my seat Max asked me why I was hopping around like a cockroach on a hot griddle. She said: "I have no problem myself, being so well endowed in the behind dept. all seats on earth are comfy, save maybe BA economy."
Max and I were worried before the show if Wilsons play would hold up as strongly as it did thirty some years ago. At drinks after, we both agreed it did. It could have used a bit of judicial cutting here and there, but nope… not one line was cut from the original script. And I still loved it.
At drinks afterwards I asked Max what she thought.
"Well for such an August playwright…."
(I groaned audibly at this low attempt at humor.)
"I found it an extremely intense family drama with its share of "Green Fried Tomatoes humor."
I had no idea what she meant by that, but before I could question her she was racing on with her opinions. "But though it was nearly 3 hours! Oy vey!- that was one absorbing play of black working class life in the South. Our 'Everyman' hero, so disappointed with what 'curved balls' have been sadly thrown at him- beautifully brought to life by Lenny Henry as the central character, was magnificent. He lived breathed and drank in the role of Troy. You might say about Lenny-that a new star is born in the West End (and the deep South of the '50s)."
I then pointed out that it was set in Pennsylvania. This didn't phase her a lick. Max was on a roll. I asked what she thought of the rest of the cast.
"The rest of the cast were nicely in tune with Lenny. Bono, his best buddy, in the garbage truck and out of it is a wonderful rhythmic foil. Warm and engaging, and understands more than most of the family-Troy's (Lenny Henry's character) fatal flaws that will in the end be his undoing."
I sort of agreed with Max on Bono. Although he was an obviously fine actor, I somehow found him a bit too "Amos and Andy-ish" for my taste. Maybe just a bit too big and broad with his brush strokes for complete believability. (This I blame the direction for really.)
"How about the wife Max? What did you think of her?" I asked.
Max looked in the program. "Ah! Here we go; Tanya Moodie played his loyal wife holding the marriage together in a decent down to earth way, is excellent. And I just loved the little girl (Tranae Sinclair the night we saw it) at the end of the second act as well as the two brothers Peter Bankole and Ashely Zhangazha.” I pretty much agreed with all this but had to say I thought Zhangazha (young Cory) gurned (pulled faces… mugged) a bit too much for my taste. Again I blame the direction. I feel Paulette Randall needed to reign pretty much everybody in a bit closer to reality (except Lenny of course who was spot on) than she did. The parallel themes of a failed baseball career and ending up a garbage man with a very low ceiling for advancement was adeptly handled by the playwright Wilson, giving ample reason for Troy's angers and frustrations with himself and his life, and then taking it all out on his youngest son Cory. Wilson also made it very clear that Troy's extracurricular activities that eventually brought about his downfall were self-inflicted.
I asked Max about the set.
"I liked the folksy, shabby set with the hot Southern (again Pennsylvania) sun, but I couldn't figure out why they were making a fence when the house was obviously surrounded by a large brick wall."
I pointed out that those brick walls were actually the outside walls of the Duchess Theater.
Max said: "Oh… But I loved the lighting. But I wasn't happy with the choice in music. Oh how I longed for some of the black soul music of the '50s? All those soulful, sexy songs that got us through the hazy days and the dripping hot nights before air-conditioning."
"Anything else Max?" I asked drily.
"Yes! I would have liked to see Troy and Bono, coming home, filthy, from garbage collecting and sweaty from driving - would have liked to have seen them, through the dense long speechy dialogue - to see a rusty old shower, or hose, at the side of the old cottage and for Troy to strip down to his fruit of the loon knickers to shower off before going into Rose's tidy home."
"Max…" I said, rolling my eyes.
"OK stripped to the waist then. It would make a homely touch, but one that might have worked, but then I am not the director." Sighed Max.
I silently thanked the Gods of Theatre for that and ordered another drink as Max was getting a bit worked up now and needed calming. Maybe the direction wasn't so bad after all.
Well, at the end of the evening when they called time at the pub we had both come to the conclusion that Fences with Lenny Henry was fabulous and well worth seeing and telling others to go see it too.