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Theatre review: Fences - Lenny Henry's towering performance further proves his status as a serious actor

Duchess Theatre, London

You can't accuse Lenny Henry of lacking intrepidity. Back in 2009, he dived in at the deep end as a classical actor in the titanic role of Othello and pulled off the extraordinary feat of persuading us to forget that he was a Shakespeare novice. Now he is once again bravely broaching territory unfamiliar to him in taking on the massive central role in Fences (1987), one of August Wilson's great “Pittsburgh cycle” of ten plays which explore the African-American experience in each decade of the twentieth century.

Brought to life in a beautifully judged and bruisingly powerful revival by Paulette Randall, the piece is set in 1957 and the 53-year-old Troy Maxson seems to have got his life back on course after the unsteady start of struggles with a violent father and a stretch in a penitentiary. His peace-keeping peach of a wife (excellent Tanya Moodie) stuck by him and it looks as if he is going to be promoted to the rank of truck-driver in his job as a garbage man. On Friday nights, he likes nothing better than to share a bottle on the porch and shoot the breeze with his old mucker and workmate, Jim Bono. Henry and Colin McFarlane splendidly get the measure of the bantering rhythms, joshing braggadocio and the vernacular poetry in Wilson's dauntingly wordy script. 

But Troy, once a brilliant baseball-player, nurses a grievance that he was born too early as a black man to earn a living from the sport. His resentment brings him into bitter conflict with his talented 17-year-old son Cory (Ashley Zhangazha) who is being courted by college-recruiter. Burnt and disillusioned himself, Joe wants his boy to settle for a safe job with a weekly pay cheque. There's an Oedipal electricity in the pair's angry face-offs and a sense of the endless cycle whereby the oppressed of one generation become oppressors in their turn. 

Henry brings a strong personal warmth to the part but also forcefully exposes Troy's discomfiting and unlovely contradictions as the betrayal of his wife and his brain-damaged brother come to light. Authentically inhabiting the character's body language as well as his speech habits, he swings with compelling conviction between robust playful humour, dogged emotional denial, eruptive fury and the kind of defiance that periodically makes Troy taunt the figure of Death with a baseball bat. The dramaturgy is conventional and clunky; the performance cements Henry's status as a serious actor.      

To September 14; 0207 400 1257