The rise of Lenny Henry, an appreciation – 2013
19th June 2013
Lenny Henry: from figure of fun to serious contender: first published in the Daily Telegraph, June 19 2013.
Barrie Rutter well remembers the apprehension surrounding Lenny Henry’s theatrical debut four years ago. It wasn’t that the director – who gave the comedian the break and challenge of a lifetime by casting him as Othello – feared that Henry, who’d never been to drama school let alone trodden the boards in a leading role, wasn’t up to it. The dread was that preconceptions about this household name would cloud perceptions about his performance for Northern Broadsides.
“We thought people would just go ‘Is this a gimmick?’ ” Rutter recalls. “I have to confess that though I was convinced he was ready for it, I thought the perceived trickery of it would dominate the response. It was a great, great thrill when that didn’t happen.”
He’s putting it mildly. Henry’s in-at-the-deep-end debut wasn’t a ridiculous flop as some might have expected, or hoped. It was also far more than just a decent effort by someone who had mainly tried to make people laugh since the age of 16, when he shot to fame doing impressions on the TV talent show New Faces. It was hailed as a triumph in its own right – “One of the most astonishing debuts in Shakespeare I have ever seen,” Charles Spencer raved. It wound up in the West End and despite having turned 50, Henry won the Evening Standard Best Newcomer Award for 2009.
Since then, having hit the ground running, he has shown no let-up. Dominic Cooke’s modern-day, multicultural version of The Comedy of Errors at the National was all the better for Henry’s characteristically exuberant, show-stealing turn as Antipholus of Syracuse. Even if that was nominally back in his comfort zone, he didn’t simply play the clown. As one reviewer noted: “He’s great at the physical slapstick, but he also gives real emotional depth to the role.”
And this year he’s been branching out again, playing Troy Maxson, the flawed, wounded and wounding patriarch in August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Fences. Taking on the part originally created on Broadway by James Earl Jones requires more line-learning than Othello, a sure tonal grasp of a Pittsburgh “Hill District” accent circa 1957 and also a readiness to root around in the darker emotions of failure and bitterness. Praised to the hilt once again by critics who caught Paulette Randall’s production in Bath, this marks a hat-trick of successes.
For the West End producer and theatre-owner Nica Burns, who decided the show had to be seen in London, his third thespian venture sets a seal on Henry’s recent transformation. “I’ve seen Fences done in America very well by actors whose heritage it is and I was astounded at his performance,” she says. “What I loved about it is that he brought an unexpected warmth to the role that I hadn’t seen in the other performances. He made the part richer and deeper. I really take my hat off to him,” she continues. “Lenny was always a happy comedian, a big smiley man. You think of him as a joker, with a happy-go-lucky persona. To make the transition and change perceptions about him as a performer is very hard to do and he has done it very quickly.”
It remains to be seen, of course, whether those drawn to the Duchess Theatre by the recognition factor of his name will prove quite so willing or able to suspend their habitual associations of Henry, now 54, whether it be for his primetime comedy vehicles, occasional TV drama sightings (most notably the comprehensive-set BBC series Hope and Glory), ad campaigns or Comic Relief, which he helped found. “We have to convince audiences all over again,” Paulette Randall admits.
Yet there’s little reason to suppose he won’t work the same magic. If there’s any obvious lesson to be learnt from the past few years of his career it’s that we’re fools to underestimate Henry. He has negotiated a difficult period of his life which has seen revelations about infidelity, depression and the gradual breakdown of his marriage to Dawn French (which ended in 2010) spilling into the public arena, and he has emerged stronger and more confident for it.
You could say he has turned a midlife crisis into a plethora of dramas, drawn from world theatre, which in some way obliquely reflect his own complex situation. This isn’t something that Henry himself is rushing to point out – it’s for us to note. Sometimes accused of overstatement in his comedy, there’s something far more subtle going on in his canny choice of theatrical roles.
Is there not an Othello-like aspect to Henry’s faintly isolated status as a black role model and pioneer? Although he has long been at the heart of the light entertainment establishment, he has to some extent been derided and disregarded because of it: witness Ricky Gervais’s vicious snub on the sitcom Extras, in which Gervais, “challenged” to name a single funny black British comedian, glanced up at a poster of Henry and then pointedly looked away.
It’s not hard either to spot parallels between the rampant identity confusions of The Comedy of Errors and Henry’s own struggle to work out who he is and where he’s coming from, a process that has become more pronounced in his increasingly reflective live shows. It’s a journey that actually began at the outset, when he found himself – ever more unhappily – in Blackpool as the first black member of the Black and White Minstrels, ingratiating himself with jokes that naively pandered to racists.
What’s “totally crucial” about Henry – to borrow the catchphrase of one of his caricature creations, flash DJ Delbert Wilkins – is that he no sooner spots a limitation than tries to move beyond it, and that applies to his hunger for education too, from the O-levels he sat during his days as a seaside entertainer to the PhD he is currently completing.
Again, with Fences, there are abundant fascinations about his casting – not least the fact that the blue-collar world that Troy Maxson is confined by, itself fenced in by racial prejudice, is one Henry only narrowly escaped himself. His father, a remote figure – like Maxson – worked at an industrial foundry and Henry was on his way to becoming an engineer in Dudley when his supersized talent for mimicry got him spotted.
In a neat passing coincidence, Troy’s line of work is as a dustman, a job Henry briefly “landed” back in 1975 in an episode of The Fosters, Britain’s first black sitcom, in which he starred as the young whippersnapper Sonny: “Well I’ll be working outside, I get free gloves and overalls and all I can salvage from the bins!” the character joked.
Looking at the huge sweep of Henry’s career, it’s hard not to marvel at how far he has come since then and to wonder where he’ll take us next. Whether he ends up being appreciated more for his late-flowering seriousness or the all-inclusive silliness he has majored in since boyhood, or both equally, remains to be seen. But as he reaches yet another milestone, it’s high time we paused to say “Let’s hear it for Len”.