Rudy's Rare Records, Hackney Empire, review: Lenny Henry is absurdly likeable

The play is a delight from start to finish

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Doreen (superb Lorna Gayle) who is the black Miss Adelaide figure in this wonderfully winning joint production with Hackney Empire, is devoted to the titular Rudy, the ageing Jamaican proprietor of a Handsworth rare record shop.  As well as doing the weekly wash of his smalls, she even irons his underpants.

“But every time I look at you.  I ruin the crease” declares this would-be roue and commitment phobe who, in Larrington Walker's endearingly scapegrace performance looks like “a pepperami in pants” and really knows how to put the “gall” in faux gallantry. 

For all his perkily shifty bravado, Rudy is not in the best of health and he is being besieged by pushy offers from the developers to sell his shop that looks as if it was dusted “when Elton John liked girls” and that has been commercially superseded by the practice of downloading. 

His son – long-suffering divorcee and media studies refugee Adam (brought to life in a superb portrayal that combines warm mischievous concern, waspish exasperation and some great reggae and rap impersonations by the absurdly likeable Lenny Henry) –  has returned to his birthplace from London to look after his father, only to be overtaken by inter-generational problems of his own. 

Richie (delightful Joivan Wade) his 18 year old son, who chose to do a geography degree rather than become a gansta-rapping pimp, has sought out the solace of the shop at a time suspiciously close to his first year exams.

This basic set-up derives, of course, from the popular Radio 4 sitcom of the same name. But writer Danny Robins, with Henry helping with the dramaturgy, has built the proceedings up into an extremely funny and shrewd cross between a state-of-the-nation take on multi-racial Britain now and contagiously joyous juke box musical with elatingly daft – and deft – covers of reggae and rap numbers.

Paulette Randall's wittily self-guying production welds it all together with splendid aplomb. Ms Gayle turns from sad spinster to chassis-swinging siren with glorious strategic results. The time of real community, as opposed to the more atomised computer-based culture is celebrated. 

Rudy and his Trinidadian pal Clifton (brilliantly amusing Jeffery Kissoon) are like Shakespeare's Shallow and Silence recalling the doubtless exaggerated randy exploits of their youth while preposterously feeling almost a nostalgia for the old days of simple racial prejudices before these East Europeans and Muslims muscled in and complicated the terrain.  Then UKIP supporters start daubing all of their establishments with alarming graffiti.... 

Rudy has always been drawn to embroidering the truth, suggesting an unlikely intimacy with the greats of the black music business – even believing that he invented margarine because he once expressed to his wife a disappointment with butter.  So when he announces that Ziggy Marley is going to visit to boost the campaign to save the shop, guess who has to fill the breach with a concert performance of his own (cue delirious Desmond Dekker take-off).  

A delight from start to finish.

Until 5 Oct; 020 8985 2424