King Hedley II (Theatre Royal, Stratford East)

A lengthy revival of August Wilson’s depiction of African-American life in mid-80s America reaches its second preview at Stratford East, directed by Nadia Fall.

Although much has been made of the debut of Lenny Henry at this venue, he’s only one part of a core cast of six, who portray family and friends with secrets, resentments, and faith.

Lenny Henry in King Hedley II
Lenny Henry in King Hedley II

With a tendency to light character revelations as if they are monologues, King Hedley II can both run the risk of taking an audience out of the moment, and drawing them in deeper to the tragedy which slowly unfolds.

Martina Laird, last seen by me in a gender-swap The Taming of the Shrew in 2016, plays Ruby, a former band singer who gave up her son, King (Aaron Pierre), to her sister, and had her lover blasted to death by the man who has courted her on and off for 37 years. Her life is as heavy as can be but she still brings a girlish lightness to the part.

Martina Laird and Lenny Henry in rehearsal for King Hedley II
Martina Laird and Lenny Henry in rehearsal for King Hedley II

He’s Elmore, a gambling crook and a sharp-suited ageing Romeo. Lenny Henry plays the role well, easily commanding the stage in his early scenes, and crumbling apart as his veneer of bravado finally cracks open.

Next door is the God-fearing Stool Pigeon (Leo Wringer), who has hundreds of newspapers piled high in his house, visible at each window, perusing them each day because “you need to know”.

Dexter Flanders, Martina Laird, Aaron Pierre in rehearsal for King Hedley II
Dexter Flanders, Martina Laird, Aaron Pierre in rehearsal for King Hedley II

King wants to emulate his father, Hedley, who killed a man with a machete. His destiny is to be somebody, although he’s killed for being called a champ and being ripped open with a razor. With friend Mister (Dexter Flanders), a loser whose wife has walked out and who dresses scrappily, he talks about money and settling scores.

Wilson’s passages recalling the murders were very well directed and performed by all concerned, and rightly full of realistic detail – we visualise the man trapped in the phone booth with terror in his eyes; we see the skull fragment shoot across the barber shop; we are with the woman who recognises her beau by all that is left of his face at the morgue.

Lenny Henry in the trailer for King Hedley II
Lenny Henry in the trailer for King Hedley II

Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete) is thirty-five and pregnant, but she’s already a grandmother by her grown-up daughter who trawls bars for men “to lay down with”. She sees no future but a man in prison and a child on a slab, yet she still walks in bright red lipstick and heels as though she’s searching for something.

Music choices for scene changes and backing work well in this production, all female-led and underlining the action we have seen or are about to. At key points Ruby, Elmore and Tanya also sing snatches of tunes which fit with the general plot.

Lenny Henry in King Hedley II
Lenny Henry in King Hedley II

The staging, too, by Peter McKintosh: the first thing we see is a transparent curtain with news items about Reagan, then two houses with an alleyway, a fence, and a patch of dirt where King wants to grow flowers.

King Hedley II is a modern tragedy, but not without humour. At the moment it is running 3 hr 40 including interval, not the 3 hr noted in the programme, so a pick-up of pace, some trimming, or an earlier start might help those with half an eye on their transport home.

Give this neglected play your attention, though, and you’ll find a modern classic with both the power to make you smile, and to shock you at the climax of the final act.

Photo credits Sharron Wallace and Simon Annand.


The Comedy of Errors (National Theatre)

Originally published on my LiveJournal blog on 12th December 2011.

The audience numbers for this new production of Shakespeare’s classic comedy, directed by Dominic Cooke, has naturally been the National Theatre debut of Lenny Henry as Antipholus of Syracuse.  Previously Henry has struck Shakespeare gold in the tragedy of Othello against all the odds – he’s been almost exclusively known for his comedy ever since his teenage appearance on New Faces.  So how will he fare here in what is essentially Elizabethan farce?

For those who don’t know the story, Egeon of Syracuse has visited the forbidden city of Ephesus to search for his son, who went forth on a quest to seek his long-lost mother and twin brother (lost at sea many years before), taking along his faithful servant Dromio, himself a twin long parted from his mirror image.  Egeon is arrested and detained as an illegal alien, while the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio soon find themselves being mistaken for other people.

If the penny dropped at this point, the Syracusans would find those they had lost but we would be robbed of a fun frolic through misunderstanding, heightened here by the use of pop songs such as Paranoid and Mad World (sung in Romanian by a rag tag group of musicians) and sets such as the luxury apartments which make up the Phoenix, the beat box nightclub at the Porcupine, and – less successful – the Abbey ‘Clinic’.

There’s even a real ambulance which appears at the height of the farce as the two Antipholi and the two Dromios use those metallic scooters beloved of modern commuters to evade capture. 

As for the cast?  Well, Henry is a big man with a big voice, and therefore impresses – although he seems to mute an African accent very early on (perhaps for the best as his mirror Antipholus, Chris Jarman, does not have such an accent).  As the twin Dromios, Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser are almost indistinguishable in their thick glasses and Arsenal t-shirts – they are entertaining in their low humour and make the most of their bits of funny business.  As the wife and sister in law of the Ephesian Antipholus, Claudie Blakley and Michelle Terry also make their mark.

For me the best version of The Comedy is still the 1970s musical developed at the Royal Shakespeare Company, but the National’s effort is by no means a failure.  It’s worth your time to go and have a look.