August in England at the Bush review: Lenny Henry’s Windrush play is passionate, funny and hugely affecting
Lenny Henry’s first play, a monologue he also expertly performs, is a fierce indictment of our government’s mistreatment of Windrush generation immigrants. The tale of Jamaican-born grocer, grandfather, lover and wannabe singer August Henderson, threatened with deportation after five decades rooted in British society, is often unashamedly sentimental but also long on laughs. So when August is menaced by Theresa May’s “hostile environment”, it’s even more chilling.
Henry draws on his own Jamaican and Midlands heritage here, fusing his well-honed comedy skills with the emotional range he’s uncovered since reinventing himself as a dramatic stage actor. At 64, he also grinds to ska and reggae classics like a much younger man and even executes some high intensity exercise moves.
This isn’t a ground-breaking play and sometimes the comic patter threatens to overwhelm the story. But it’s passionate, well-crafted, and directed with economy and pace by the Bush’s Lynette Linton and Daniel Bailey in a production that showcases Henry’s innate rapport with an audience. Which begins with him doling out tots of rum to the front row. Note to tall people: the legroom is better there, too.
August is a born raconteur with great comic timing. Arriving aged eight with his mother in London, they discover his father in bed with a redhead. The family ups sticks for West Bromwich, where August battles racist schoolmates and then forsakes factory work for selling parsnips with his Indian friend Iqbal. He slips fluently between Jamaican and Black Country accents, not least in an extraordinary version of I Shot the Sherriff while part of a 1970s covers band called Black Fist.
His parents’ marriage was as “miserable as Nigel Farage at the Notting Hill Carnival”, which is why he never married his enthralling partner, Clarice. His courtship of her and the birth of their three children – a teacher, bus driver and footballer – are recalled with a mixture of schmaltz, boom-boom jokes and wryness.
But jarring images of August in a detention cell, projected on the back wall of Natalie Price’s vestigial living-room set, foreshadow what is to come. An early gag about his obscure position in school photographs develops into an insistent theme detailing what it feels like not to be seen.
It looks like the comedy and the sentiment come easily to Henry, but the moments when August is overwhelmed with desolation are wrenchingly affecting. He can’t name the disease that claims one of his loved ones, and he turns bashfully from us when wracked by convulsive sobs. Later, events bring him to his knees and force a howl from his throat. If you still think of Henry as ‘just’ a superlative comic writer and performer, the genial co-founder and frontman of Comic Relief, these moments will disabuse you.
Filmed interviews with real victims of the Windrush scandal make for a slightly awkward ending, but one that underlines the faceless cruelty of an ongoing government policy. Whatever this play’s minor flaws, Henry can confidently add ‘playwright’ to his already polymathic CV.
Bush Theatre, to June 10; bushtheatre.co.uk