All the way through Lenny Henry's first West End show, So Much Things To Say, he keeps apologising for having appeared, aged 16, on the BBC's Black and White Minstrel Show. It happened years before he ever encountered the non-sexist, non-racist humour of the alternative comedians, but he still feels the need to do his penance. It's as if he's been running to catch up with his university educated, politically correct peers, and now, at 45, the inferiority complex has burgeoned into a full-blown mid-life crisis. He's straining to prove he's not just an old school entertainer, but an earnest, intellectual spokesman for Black Britain.
Dressed soberly and using no scenery or props except a small table and chair, he tells us in the opening two minutes that we're a lot whiter than he expected, that he wants us to laugh like black people, and that he'd paid some black people to sit in the audience, but they'd done a runner with the money. This is all very well, but Henry's race-related material is still that of a 16-year-old cabaret star who wants to try a little bit of politics. There's nothing very empowering about the rigidly scripted observation that Jamaicans are laidback, and his other gags are no more sophisticated. Along with the revelations that politicians can't be trusted and war is bad, one routine even begins with the dread words, "Men and women don't really understand each other." And would a white comedian get away with asking why it is that all Indians can fix televisions? The title, So Much Things To Say, speaks more of the show's aspirations than of its actual content.
Henry is obviously less interested in stand-up than in acting. He intersperses the jokes with vignettes from five black characters, all drawn from people he interviewed on the streets of Shepherd's Bush: a Jamaican corner shop owner, a Tory barrister, a dissatisfied wife, a Para on patrol in Iraq, and an erstwhile Lothario in an old folks' home. It's in these segments that we see Henry's remarkable knack of morphing into someone of a different age and background - without any change of costume or make-up - a talent that's especially impressive after the interval, when he drops the stand-up and lets the characters' stories merge into a play. But, again, he's so weighed down by his need to represent these people respectfully that he daren't make them too funny. Where would Steve Coogan be if he were so conscientious about Alan Partridge's feelings?
I came out of the theatre wishing that Henry would relax, lighten up, and realise that he doesn't have to represent anyone except himself. Still, there's no denying that he has a range and perspicacity as an actor that's yet to be exploited. I look forward to seeing him in the West End again soon - but in a play written by someone else, please.
'So Much Things To Say': Wyndham's Theatre, London WC2 (020 7369 1736), to 29 NovemberReuse content