Review: Fences

Moving beyond first base


By John Nathan, July 7, 2013
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Duchess Theatre WC2

Mending fences:  Lenny Henry and Tanya Moodie in the starring roles (Photo: Nobby Clark)

Mending fences: Lenny Henry and Tanya Moodie in the starring roles (Photo: Nobby Clark)

We will never know if Troy, the flawed hero in August Wilson’s 1987 play, never played major league baseball because he was too old or, in a white-dominated sport, because he was too black.

In any case, Wilson’s play — set between the Korean and Vietnam wars — teaches us that it’s not the events in life that define us, but how we mould them into a version of the truth that makes it easier to live with ourselves. It’s an observation Arthur Miller made to devastating effect in plays such as All My Sons, where a father lives in denial about the damage he caused to his offspring, or in The Price, in which one brother holds the other responsible for an unfulfilled life. And Wilson is equally devastating in this Pulitzer winner.

For Troy Maxson — portrayed in Paulette Randall’s sure-footed production by imposing comedian-turned-classical actor Lenny Henry — it was white folks who denied the talented player the chance to show what he could do with a bat on a baseball diamond. There is no doubting the reality of that racial barrier but Wilson, like Miller, is too good a dramatist to release victims in his plays from responsibility for their own lives.

Troy takes responsibility seriously, handing over his garbage man’s wage to his wife Rose every Friday, holding just a little back to sink a bottle of liquor on the stoop of his house with his old friend and fellow former prison inmate Bono. And responsibility is the reason he prevents his youngest son Cory from forging a career in American football. He would be better off with a trade, something no one can take away from you, he tells Cory. However, there is the suspicion that Troy is as motivated as much by jealousy as by a father’s instinct to protect his boy. Troy won’t even go to see his elder musician son’s gig.

Wilson sets the production entirely in the yard of the modest, rickety house whose mortgage Troy has been paying for 15 years. And it provides another major step on the road to Henry becoming a fine classical actor.

His previous role was Othello. I’d be lying if I claimed I found it easy to dissociate Henry’s serious acting from his past as a light entertainment comedy crowd-pleaser. And there are moments when singing the blues, or mimicking his pernickety white bosses, when comedian overshadows thespian. The straight-talking Troy, you feel, would never have such a repertoire of pastiche voices at his disposal.

Henry’s challenge as an actor will be to deploy his comic tools even more discerningly than he does here. There is, though, no doubting the charisma and stature of the man. Or his acting talent. Even in the many light-hearted moments of reminiscence and banter between Troy and Bono, or the darker passages where the men air grievances about their inadequate or cruel fathers, you can almost taste Troy’s bitterness at the cards life has dealt him.

But nor is there much doubt about which of this production’s fine performances is the finest. And it’s not Henry’s. It’s Tanya Moodie’s. She plays Rose, the loyal, sexual, modest, loving, matriarch. Moodie underplays the role while vividly capturing every one of Rose’s qualities, doing it with a subtlety that everyone else on the stage could learn a thing or two from. Even the very impressive Henry.

Last updated: 6:45pm, July 7 2013