Lenny Henry has already scored significant stage successes with plays supposedly out of his comfort zone as someone who is best known as a genial comedian and TV comic actor.
He won the outstanding newcomer award for playing the title role in Othello and then the Critics’ Circle Theatre best actor award for August Wilson’s Fences.
However, he now appears in a play which is all about a young Liverpudlian working class hairdresser seeking to leave her own (dis)comfort zone and gain herself an education through the tutelage of Henry’s shambling Open University tutor Frank, and he comes weirdly unstuck.
His personal discomfort revealed itself not just in a first night incident in which he seriously scrambled where he was in the first act, apologised to the audience and then left the stage to compose himself before resuming. He had already felt as if he was floundering before that, lost in a character who is all about providing intellectual definitions to his student and making literary distinctions, but not providing an authentic voice to enable them to ring true. As the problems amplified, so his voice started failing and sounded increasingly hoarse.
Henry, recently knighted for his charitable work, particularly for Comic Relief, found little relief or comedy in the role, not helped by Michael Buffong’s lethargic production that plods along at a mostly unvarying pace and with little grace.
Jangly jazz muzak between every scene deadens the atmosphere further, instead of enhancing it. Even Lashana Lynch’s feisty, eager Rita — the 26-year-old hairdresser who discovers a passion for literature and even the theatre — turns disappointingly shrill at times of stress.
Some of Willy Russell’s wit survives the overall heavy-handedness, and 35 years on from its premiere at the Donmar Warehouse under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company, it remains an enduringly fresh take on the Pygmalion story, in which an older man platonically leads a young woman to a new way of life, but whose own loneliness lies at the palpable heart of it. His use of an old manual typewriter is about the only anchor in the production to suggest it is set in the past here.
Poor directorial choices botch this revival at other times, too, not least when no fewer than three stage hands enter near the end to laboriously remove some books from Frank’s extensive bookshelves that indicate he is moving on. The energy drains from the room quicker than the books do.
Last seen in London when the Menier revived it in 2010 in rep with Russell’s Shirley Valentine, the play warrants a return. But this production doesn’t provide a good enough reason to revisit it.
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