“Yu have to bend the tree while it’s young; if you wait till it’s old it wi’ jus’ bruk’ off in you hand.”
I do not recall seeing a play specifically about the Windrush Scandal but this subject has inspired Sir Lenny Henry to write his first play. He performs his engaging monologue at the Bush Theatre which, under the artistic directorship of Lynette Linton, is proving a reliably exciting venue for new plays. Starting his career in comedy, Sir Lenny has impressed with acting performances in Othello and August Wilson’s Fences.
HMS Windrush was one of the first ships bringing people from the Caribbean to live and work in England from 1948. The issue, more than 50 years later, was that their children had often travelled on their parents’ passports and after a lifetime of living and working in Britain were accused of being illegal immigrants. Their jobs were forfeit and they were made homeless and sent to detention centres, and threatened with deportation to the West Indies where they knew no-one. For most it was a very frightening experience.
Lenny Henry’s play is centred around August Chamberlain Henderson, played by himself, who aged eight, travels from Jamaica to England with his mother Tallulah to join his father Hubert. In Peckham, Hubert is ensconced with a woman, a red head with red lips, white skin and freckles but Tallulah soon sees off the other woman. They move to the Midlands and August switches from a Jamaican accent to the Black Country one of Dudley. Here August finds a devotion to West Bromwich Albion the local football team.
At school in Dudley, August is initially the only boy from the Caribbean but he soon learns to defend himself against racial slurs, usually with a physical response. In the school photos, August was just a black smudge so his mother said she wasn’t going to buy the photograph unless she could see him properly. After the first few years, his mamma made him bring a torch.
As Lenny Henry plays all the parts with his masterly comic timing and talent for accents, he can switch from broad Jamaican to the West Midlands without taking a breath. At senior school there are more black kids in the school and he forms a band called Black Fist. Black kids in the Sixties were inspired by Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and Kunta Kinte from the television series Roots. There were singers like Bob Marley breaking into white culture.
In the audience in the front row of the Black Fist gigs, August meets Clarice the future mother of his three children. To support his family August realises Black Fist won’t provide so he goes into partnership with Iqbal in a fruit and vegetable shop. The years pass with more family details until fifty years on, Immigration discover that despite all the years living here, August is not a British Citizen.
This is where we stop laughing, shocked by the inhumanity as August’s story changes to filmed accounts of others caught in the Windrush Scandal. People were traumatised by the threatening letters, the idea of going back to a place where you knew no-one, employment stopped because you didn’t have a work visa and detention, no benefits, nor healthcare. All because they came as children on a parent’s passport and have no official record. David Olusega has written about and filmed many affected by the 2018 British government disgrace.
The impact of August in England ends on this note of anger and sorrow and is all the more powerful because of August’s story, someone we have come to care about and laugh and cry with.
August in England
Written and performed by Lenny Henry
Directed by Lynette Linton and Daniel Bailey
Directors: Lynette Linton and Daniel Bailey
Designer: Natalie Pryce
Video Design: Gino Ricardo Green
Lighting Designer: Jai Morjaria
Sound Designer and Composer:
Movement Director: Shelley Maxwell
Windrush Consultant: Amelia Gentleman
Running Time: One hour 40minutes without an interval
Booking to 10th June 2023
The Bush Theatre
Tube Shepherd’s Bush Market
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Bush Theatre
on 12th May 2023