Tuesday, July 09, 2013

'Fences' at the Duchess Theatre


We've been spoiled with serious American dramas in London recently. Works by Arthur Miller, Clifford Odetts and Tennessee Williams all prod the underbelly of the American Dream.  They give more to chew on than the usual tourist-pleasing  musicals.

Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson's name is less well known. He  wrote a cycle of plays that set out to explore over ten decades the experience of people who lived in an area of  Pittsburgh where he was brought up. It's  a perfect vehicle for our home-grown Lenny Henry, fresh from his triumph as Othello.

The run-down Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1957 is  a predominantly black area. Lenny Henry plays paterfamilias Troy, first seen in overalls as he brings home his Friday wage-packet from his job as a garbage-collector. His workmate  Bono (Colin McFarlane) and he take turns at a gin bottle in a brown paper bag as they relax around the verandah of Troy's house.  Troy clearly out-swigs Bono but his mainstay is his strong-minded wife, Rose (Tanya Moodie).  
We learn from the admiring Bono that Troy's early promise as a baseball player was cut short by the prevailing racist attitudes of the era.  However, Troy as a home owner enjoys a measure of status and independence ; the house was bought from the compensation money for his brother's war injuries.
When Troy's son Cory (Ashley Zhangaztha)  seems to have inherited his father's aptitude for baseball, we might expect Troy to encourage him. The opposite is true. The tension between talented son and resentful father provides much of the drama in the first half of the play. Troy is  a man determined to enjoy his life despite the odds stacked against him. He doesn't shrink from  the price of  an alternative kind freedom, which adds to an already complex character. As he  alienates  his wife and son, as well as most of the neighbourhood, he becomes a tragic figure.
It's rare to see an audience so united in a standing ovation, rarer still that  I'm prompted to join them.  Be warned that the second half, although challenging, has a beautifully rendered scene  that will have you dabbing your eyes all the way down the Strand.

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