Lenny Henry has UK premier as Troy Maxon in August Wilson's Fences at Bath Theatre Royal
Last night in Bath, Britain's favourite entertainer Lenny Henry went on stage for the first time in what's considered to be one of the most challenging roles in contemporary theatre.
Lenny has described the role of Troy Maxon in August Wilson's Fences as 'the African American King Lear' – but, he told the Guide this week, with many more lines to learn.
Taking a break from intensive rehearsals Lenny confessed that it was the most amount of dialogue he had ever had to learn in one go. "And while in other places dialogue might be cut, not here," he says.
Lenny was last at the Theatre Royal in 2009 with his acclaimed interpretation of Othello which went on to play to packed houses in London's West End.
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This one is on a short countrywide tour and also destined for a hot spot in London's theatreland.
Fences is one of an increasing number of West End plays that originate here in Bath via Theatre Royal Bath Productions which is why this much-talked-about show opens in Bath where it runs for more than a week.
Set in 1950s Pennsylvania, before the Civil Rights Movement, Fences is the story of what happens when a strong man is robbed of his dreams and of a family trying to hold together despite the odds, a universal story which will touch a chord in every human heart. Playing the towering central character of tragic hero Troy Maxson, Lenny Henry follows in a distinguished line of performers which includes James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne and Denzel Washington.
In fact says Lenny it was James who first told him about the play when he worked with him in New York in 1991 on the film True Identity.
"He said I should look at the play although Eddy Murphy already had the film rights. I read the play and thought 'that's a lot of lines to learn'."
In the play Troy is a rubbish collector, embittered because he believes that he could have been a top baseball player but for being black.
He cheats on his wife and treats his son badly – no role model at all for today's parents. "But you know," says Lenny, "parents from that era who see the play may well think that what he says makes sense even if the way he behaves isn't how they would want to be."
Lenny has experiences of his own to draw on for the play. "My own dad was a non hugging man who told us we would be watching cricket on TV and not the cartoons we wanted to see."
Although after Othello Lenny tackled a very successful Comedy of Errors he is delighted to be doing a contemporary play and hopes to do more, though he says "the Scottish play" is a very real possibility.
As if getting to grips with Troy was not enough Lenny is also studying for a PHD with Royal Holloway College – it's a PHD in by practice with the media arts department the 'practice' bit meaning he gets to make a documentary about sports films.
Fences plays at the Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday, March 2.
Tickets are on 01225 448844.
Reviewers see the play at the Theatre Royal tomorrow night. See Chronicle reviewer Christopher Hansford's review on line at www.thisisbath.co.uk on Friday and in next week's Guide.