Fences – September 2013

Experience: 7/10

By August Wilson

Directed by Paulette Randall

Company: Theatre Royal Bath Productions

Venue: Duchess Theatre

Date: Saturday 14th September 2013

Steve can remember the 1990 production of this play in the West End starring Yaphet Kotto. In fact, Yaphet Kotto is all he can remember from that production; his performance was so strong that all the other actors have faded into oblivion, which is pretty amazing given that the likes of Adrian Lester were also in the cast. This current production didn’t rise to that standard although it was enjoyable and quite moving, especially at the end. There was one understudy today, with Jay Marsh playing Lyons, but apart from his clothes looking very baggy – is he smaller than Peter Bankolé or was this a deliberate design choice? – I wasn’t aware of anything missing with his part. The crisp-munchers in the front row may have had more of an impact on the performance though; Lenny Henry even came forward after taking his bows to mouth at the offenders not to eat crisps at the theatre again!

The set was the back porch of a ramshackle house in Pittsburgh in 1957. Brick walls set well back on either side delineated the acting space, and allowed for several entrances. There was a street lamp attached to one of the walls, and parts of a wooden fence were visible around the house. We could also see into the kitchen through the back window. The porch was raised up with the steps towards the right side, and there were some wooden planks and trestles front left. A tree stood back right, next to the house, along with a hanging ball which was used for batting practice (baseball, naturally). Various chairs, boxes, a baseball bat, etc. were distributed round the place as needed, including under the porch. The upper storeys of the house were visible to the roof, although they weren’t used during the play.

The play showed us the generational changes in the black community during the 1950s in America. The absolute ban on black sportsmen was breaking down, and some were now making a name for themselves in baseball and American football. Troy Maxson, played by Lenny Henry, had been blocked from using his baseball skills some thirty years before through racial prejudice, and with the second of his children, Cory, showing promise as a footballer, he was determined not to let his son waste his time on a sport which he believed would reject him the same way.

His first son, Lyons, was a musician, and also suffered from his father’s dismissive attitude. Troy was a graduate of the school of hard knocks, and lashed out at his own children as readily as his own father had. The final scene was set just before his funeral, and although Cory had turned up, he wasn’t prepared to go to the service at first. Then he spent some time with his little half-sister Raynell (Ella Odedina). Her straightforward approach, plus the singing of a song about a dog, brought him round, and the play looked to be over when he agreed to go to the funeral with the rest of the family.

But there was another family member we hadn’t seen for a while, Gabriel, Troy’s brother. He had returned from WWII with a metal plate in his head, and spent his time wandering round the town selling fruit and veg and seeking out the “hell hounds” to destroy them. He also carried a trumpet, and since the play had a lot of music and some very good singing from the rest of the cast, I assumed he would be able to play it. When the time came for him to blow his trumpet to warn Saint Peter to open up the gates for Troy’s soul, he didn’t manage to make a sound, and his embarrassment and frustration led to some kind of seizure, following which he had an epiphany, realising that he didn’t have to make a sound with the trumpet for St Peter to open up the gates for Troy; he just had to ask. The play ended with Gabriel standing centre stage in a bright light, holding his arms out, with the other characters watching him, and it was much more moving than I’ve been able to describe.

It took me a few minutes to tune in to the accents they were using, and I missed some of the dialogue as a result, but on the whole this was a pretty clear production. Lenny Henry was very good during the scenes where Troy was being the life and soul of the party, though he didn’t go as far into the darker aspects of Troy’s personality as I would have liked, despite knocking Cory to the ground in a later scene. This left the performance feeling interesting and enjoyable rather than gripping, which is fine. The unfolding of the various characters and their paths in life was very watchable, and gave me the sense of a specific place and time. I seem to have skipped several of Wilson’s plays in the past for whatever reason; that will change.

© 2013 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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