He’s a comedian, a philanthropist, an author, an award-winning actor and a true national treasure who transcends generations. Indeed, Lenny Henry could be considered the voice of a generation; my own childhood, with its echoes of Jamaica, Covvo and Brum, was certainly punctuated by his talented representation of black, working-class humour from the Midlands.
Henry holds the crowd brilliantly throughout, using his decades-long experience as a stand-up comic to alternate between wit and gravity, fun times and tough times, Brummie and Patois
And so it makes total sense that, alongside co-directors Lynette Linton and Daniel Bailey – Bush Theatre’s Artistic Director and Associate Artistic Director respectively – Henry uses that finely-honed talent to represent a life affected by the terrible injustice of the Windrush Scandal, in this poignant play, August in England.
I’m a little biased as it’s my local, but Bush Theatre is a great space, and to see it filled with a 70% black audience fills me with familiar comfort and buoyant joy. Or, perhaps it’s the smoky haze and the music as the performance starts. The set is sparse but typical of the Black Uncle; comfy high-backed armchair with round leather pouffe; record player atop a wooden hi-fi cabinet; both a Bob Marley and a Jesus embroidered piece hung on the walls with string, amongst framed family photos.
To the soundscape of Jump in the Line by Harry Belafonte, Independent Jamaica by Lord Creator, and Welcome to Jamrock by Damian Marley, Henry enters. He’s August Henderson, a black man in his 60s, looking dapper in his suit and hat. He offers the room a rum and drinks one himself. Like I said, Uncle.
It becomes clear that this play, Henry’s playwriting debut, is one of those one-man-show affairs. Initially, I am apprehensive, but Henry holds the crowd brilliantly throughout, using his decades-long experience as a stand-up comic to alternate between wit and gravity, fun times and tough times, Brummie and Patois. He’s agile in his movement, we get August’s happy-go-lucky, hard-working vibe clearly.
That’s all we get though – a topline portrait of August’s life, albeit excellently told. Through his monologue, we go from his journey to ‘h’Inglan’ at 8 years old on his mother’s passport, through the racism he experienced in West Bromwich, all the way to him meeting the love of his wife and having his kids. When we get to what might be considered the crux of the story, the unravelling of his life after the Home Office threatens him with deportation, I feel a slight lack of empathy with the character.
We’ve had a lot of surface-level character, and not enough time to really delve deep into feeling for him. An hour and a half feels too short. I want more of August, I need to see more of his social circle, and it is my view that these are the limitations of the one-person performance.
Henry uses that finely-honed talent to represent a life affected by the terrible injustice of the Windrush Scandal, in this poignant play, August in England
This lack of character development is further punctuated at the end of the play. This, the most poignant part, is when we see and hear video testimonials from real elders from the Windrush generation and their terrible experiences at the hands of the shameful British Government. These stories, which are the inspiration behind the play, are inspiring, raw and simply heart-breaking. Perhaps this is the intention; to use the juxtaposition to give space, a deeper voice and true agency to these pioneers. If so, it works, and I am left all at once melancholy, angry at the government and charged with the sharpest of respect for anyone who went through this terrible ordeal.
The year 2023 is the 75th anniversary of HMS Windrush’s arrival in Britain. We need to be thankful and celebrate the contribution of people, like my own grandparents, who built the foundations of life and a home for so many in our community. Aside from the aforementioned limitation of the one-man-monologue style of play, Lenny Henry proves that he can tell a complex story that resonates well, on stage, in this format. He proves that he can do it all. Now that’s bostin’.