Wyndham's Theatre ends its autumn mini-season of comedians as it began, with a national favourite. But whereas, back in September, Michael Barrymore rapidly discovered the risks of taking adulation for granted, Lenny Henry remains one of Britain's best-beloved comedic cuddle-bunnies.
It's not as if he treads an altogether easy path. His material on black Britishness, which forms the bulk of his show So Much Things To Say..., contains not just humour but much deliberation; more than 25 years after the event, he still spends several minutes doing comical penance for his appearance as a sixteen-year-old with the Black & White Minstrels. Henry's great skill has been in striking a happy medium between observational comedy with no social ambitions on the one hand and a continuing didactic impulse on the other. Beyond this, his personal gift is to be so translucently a bloke who cares, with the caring and the blokishness in exactly the right blend.
Much of the first half of the show consists of stand-up segments: some material on blackness, together with more conventional riffs on mobile phones and the missus (our knowledge that the missus in question is Dawn French adds delight to his impersonations of her). These bits alternate with character monologues: a black British soldier in Iraq, a black Tory, a trio of elderly folk who came from Jamaica some 40 years ago. After the interval "Lenny Henry" vanishes altogether, as the character work becomes non-stop and intercuts between one persona and another. This is clearly thoughtful stuff (Henry conducted a number of interviews to glean source material for these characters), but it also comes close to losing the balance between laughter and the desire to be appreciated as Saying Something (cf. Whoopi Goldberg's early performance work).
However, Henry, co-writer Kim Fuller and director Simon McBurney pull the rabbit triumphantly out of the hat in the closing few minutes: Henry in his own persona begins arguing with all his other characters at once, as they collectively get metatheatrical on his ass, so to speak. In a blizzard of gags about the nature of performance, about Henry versus his creations, "call-back" references to earlier in the show and who knows what-all else, the evening draws to a remarkable, exhilarating, endearing close. Henry affects to be a little daunted at appearing in the West End, and he does seem a little compelled to be always proving himself... but, my God, what a lot he's got to show us.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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