Tanya Moodie and Lenny Henry give heart breaking performances in Fences, August Wilson's sixth play of the Pittsburgh Cycle
“Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in.“
Lenny Henry is coming of age as a great classical actor. My daughter Charlotte was impressed with his Othello for Northern Broadsides in 2009. In August Wilson’s Fences, the play that follows Troy Maxson, trash collector and ex-baseball hero, through his marriage to Rose (Tanya Moodie), Lenny Henry, once a comedy actor, finds a strong emotional depth and gives a performance which will certainly have him nominated for Best Actor in the various award ceremonies.
The first act is a longish haul as we learn that Troy’s sporting career came too early in the days of segregation and prejudice, even in professional sport where only talent should matter. This first act is about Troy’s two sons, musician Lyons (Peter Bankolé), by his first wife, who grew up when Troy was in jail, and Cory (Ashley Zhangazha), Rose’s son, who is a promising sportsman.
We meet Troy’s long time friend and work colleague Jim Bono (Colin McFarlane) and there is Troy’s brother, psychiatrically troubled Gabriel (Ako Mitchell) who has a metal plate in his head after serving in the war. The thrust of this first act is Troy trying to protect his son Cory from the racism he experienced in baseball. “I don’t want him to be like me,” says Troy. We are not sure whether Troy might be jealous if Cory were to succeed in the sport or that he is genuinely protecting his son. We suspect the former.
In the first act Troy is building the fence around himself to keep people out. He dislikes Lyons’ decision to become a jazz musician; he keeps Cory out by limiting Cory’s ambition in professional sport; his brother Gabriel has chosen to live elsewhere and Troy’s infidelity towards Rose keeps her at arm’s length. The clever aspect of Wilson’s writing is the shades he gives his characters, the balance of Troy as a humorous and likeable man, a loving husband and yet also unfaithful and hurtful and a controlling father. In the second act Rose wants the fence completed to keep her family close by.
Director Paulette Randall has honed these real performances for this excellent production. By the end of the play we know each and every one of August Wilson’s characters. Wilson’s language is powerful and poetic. Libby Watson’s set is the spacious Pittsburgh house bought with brother Gabriel’s compensatory payment for his war wound and surrounded by greenery as well as the eponymous fences. Johanna Town’s lighting gives us different times of day as the family gather in the yard and behind the gauze of the window we see Rose preparing food in the kitchen.
The second act has a big bruising scene as Troy confesses his adultery with Alberta to Rose and tells her that he will leave because Alberta is pregnant. “She gives me a different idea about myself, ” says Troy about the other woman in Florida. Tanya Moodie is a RADA trained actress with a RSC pedigree and the strength of acting in this distressing scene from her and Henry is the highlight of the play. After the death of Troy, Wilson allows us to look back on his life and for the family to remember his intellectual and cultural legacy to them and for Rose, her daughter Raynell (Crystal Mills).
Written by August Wilson
Directed by Paulette Randall
Crystal Mills/Ella Odedina/Tranae Sinclair
Director: Paulette Randall
Designer: Libby Watson
Lighting Designer: Johanna Town
Sound Designer and Music: Al Ashford
Composer: Delroy Murray
Choreographer: ‘H’ Patten
Fight Director: Bret Yount
Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Duchess on 14th September 2013
The Duchess Theatre
London WC2 5LA
Tube: Covent Garden
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Duchess
on 17th June 2013