An Evening With Lenny Henry: Who Am I, Again?
- Jay Richardson
- 6 November 2019
A lost opportunity as this national treasure bathes in the past rather than surging into the future
Part stand-up, part book reading and part BAFTA-style tribute, this publicity tour for Lenny Henry's memoir suffers from being an ill-judged amalgamation of the three. At one point in the second half, given over to a frustrating interview of Henry by his long-time writing partner Jon Canter, the latter tries to reposition his friend, stuck in 'national treasure' status, as part of a current wave of boundary-pushing confessional stand-ups. That's not entirely without foundation, as prior to the interval, Henry had reiterated his abilities as a droll storyteller, reflecting with candour and scene-setting skill on an often difficult relationship with his parents, and the racism he experienced growing up in Dudley during the 1960s.
The tone is chummy chat-show anecdotal, but with underlying edges of visceral feeling, love, hatred and pain. Henry's redoubtable Jamaican mother is brought engagingly to life in her son's affectionate, yet hardly rose-tinted characterisation of a strict disciplinarian with a rigid moral code, who nevertheless retained feet of clay. And the awkward, distant relationships Henry formed with his biological and non-biological fathers are understatedly moving in their masculine, emotional inarticulacy.
At the same time, Henry's journey from crowd-pleasing teenage impressionist who indulged prejudices, to staunch diversity campaigner, is a compelling one. With a less insatiable need to be liked and play to the gallery at every turn, he may yet nail the unique stand-up perspective of a much-loved performer who's been part of the mainstream furniture for decades, yet rails hard against that status quo. Unfortunately, the chat with the perfectly pleasant Canter rather sucks artistic credibility from the room. Regardless of the impressive achievements and struggles overcome, it's suffused with an air of self-congratulation that no amount of modesty from Henry can dispel. Along with the fact that no chance is offered for the audience to ask questions, the two friends affect a stilted display of spontaneity, despite having clips and a couple of Henry's comic turns cued up.
As demonstrated by the (needlessly) zippy edited footage of him performing dramatic acting roles on stage and screen, Lenny Henry has taken real risks in his career before. And he can afford to do so again if he really wants to revive his comedy career, with a considerable amount of audience goodwill to gamble with.
An Evening With Lenny Henry: Who Am I, Again? is on tour until Friday 29 November. Seen at Queen's Hall, Edinburgh.