Updated: May 6
Review by Rosie Holmes
“I’m the tiny black smudge over on the left by the kitchens. You couldn’t see me! But I’m there.” – this is one of Lenny Henry’s laugh-inducing lines from his new one-man play, August in England. What begins as a funny joke about his face not being visible in his school photo, quickly becomes part of a more poignant theme of not being seen and valued as a black person growing up in England, particularly as part of the Windrush Generation.
Lenny Henry, a household name in the UK, perhaps best known for his comic skills, or as one of the co-founders of Comic Relief, makes his playwriting debut in a piece providing an insight into those impacted by the injustices of the Windrush scandal. In what feels, for the first half, reminiscent of a stand-up show, Henry takes us through the life of his character, August Henderson. We hear of him arriving England, aged eight, his experience at school, the meeting of his partner and the birth of his three children, whose pictures hang proudly on the wall. However, jarring interludes of camera footage that show a distressed looking Henry in what looks like a detention centre, create moments of unease and the feeling that this show is not just a nostalgic look back at one man’s life.
In this play, Henry showcases what a talented performer he really is. He oozes charisma and energy, and commands the room, almost in the style of party host (you may even be lucky enough to have a rum with him during the show) who makes this one man show simply captivating to watch. Henry tells the story as August Henderson, but also effortlessly slips between accents, impersonating Henderson’s Granny in a broad Jamaican accent, or the West Midlands accent of his childhood peers. Consistently energetic, he also displays many dance moves, and direction by Lynette Linton ensures this play is anything but static, with the whole space used.
Henry has definitely become more well known in recent years for more serious acting roles rather than just comedy, and he proves to be a wonderful actor in this piece. While some of the night is light-hearted, there are plenty of moments that will break your heart and, rightly so, made me feel extremely uncomfortable. His character August lays bare his flaws as we hear about his mistakes and the deaths of loved ones. However, none of these will make you feel as strongly as the arrival of August’s first letter from Capita. Great anxiety ensues, as well as the anger from the audience as August grapples with the fear that he may be sent back to Jamaica as he becomes victim to Teresa May’s Hostile Environment policy. Henry effectively portrays the fear of a man who feels helpless and betrayed by the country he calls home.
The strong emotions felt throughout the piece are not just testament to Lenny Henry’s excellent performance, but also his accomplisment as a playwright. Littered with sharp and clever one-liners (“As miserable as Nigel Farage at Notting Hill Carnival”) and plenty of elongated metaphors, the audience cheered and giggled throughout at his acute and witty observations. while I worried that perhaps the recount of Henderson’s life may be too long, before getting to the crux of the play – the arrival of letters from Capita – this was not the case, and proves Henry’s capabilities as a writer. Instead, he builds up a rich tapestry of a man, as we are with August when he arrives in England, when he purchases his fruit and veg shop, and at the birth of his children. We see a life made in the UK, a man who has worked hard, paid his taxes, and raised his children in the UK. Consequently, when we see August arrested and detained in a detention centre, ready to be deported, we are all the more appalled at his treatment and full of empathy.
Raised in the midlands by Jamaican parents, Henry has clearly drawn from a lot of his personal and familial experiences in creating August in England. This allows for a deeply authentic portrayal of a Caribbean family in England that clearly resonated with many in the audience. Henry has also included the voices of those actually affected by the scandalous treatment of the Windrush Generation by the British Government. If the play itself didn’t make me feel ashamed of their treatment, the real-life testaments of those affected made me boil with rage. It’s a fitting ending that exposes the human effects of government policy and reinforces the themes of invisibility amongst the black community explored throughout.
Daniel Bailey and Lynette Linton co-direct this piece and their dynamic direction coupled with Natalie Pryce’s clever set design allow for cosiness and nostalgia to give way to tension and brutality. We are first met with a living room, pictures of family, Jesus and Bob Marley adorning the wall, as a drinks trolley sits beside them. As August’s situation becomes more frightening the rug is literally pulled from his feet and the cosiness of his English home is taken away as he finds himself alone in a Detention Centre. Dramatic lighting design by Jai Morjaria and sound design by Duramaney Kamara add to the tension and anxiety with harsh lights, blackouts and increasingly dramatic music that is in stark contrast to the warm lighting and reggae soundtrack that punctuates the first half of the show.
Lenny Henry has created a moving and funny piece that will make you fall in love with August Henderson and then break your heart as his life appears to be torn apart. Littered with Henry’s trademark one liners, he never uses comedy as a distraction, Henry’s comedy and charisma as August Henderson only serve to further highlight the appalling treatment of the victims of the Windrush scandal. It’s a poignant and important look at themes of race and identity that absolutely need exploring, especially in the year of the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush. Witty, poignant and heart-breaking, this is an incredible play which is forthcoming and understandable in its outrage.
August in England plays at The Bush Theatre until 10th June 2023, tickets available here - https://www.bushtheatre.co.uk/event/august-in-england/
Photos by Tristram Kenton