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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.

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