August in England at Bush Theatre
From the moment Lenny Henry steps on stage, dancing and handing out shots of rum to some lucky audience members, he is oozing the type of charisma that captivates and holds the attention of even the most easily distracted. Within minutes, the entire room is in the palm of his hand. He is a storyteller through and through, with flawless comic timing and a well-crafted character whose clothes seem to fit him just perfectly. This is the actor’s playwriting debut, a one-man show that has it all: love and death, grief, loneliness, ska and reggae music, and anger at social injustice.
The main character, in fact, is one of the many victims of the Windrush scandal, which saw hundreds of Caribbean-born British citizens being wrongly targeted, threatened, and detained by a profoundly faulty and discriminatory immigration system. Born in Jamaica, August moved to England with his mum when he was only eight – London first and then West Bromwich. And in the Midlands he becomes part of a community, slowly building his very own home; while performing with his band, Black Fist, he meets his partner, Clarice, and falls in love with her deep voice and incredible mind.
The set, designed by Natalie Price, is the warm, homely living room where August has spent most of his life, dancing to ska and reggae, raising his three children, and also looking after his wife after she became terminally ill. He can’t bring himself to name the disease, almost relying on us, his audience, to fill in the gaps and protect him from pouring too much of his pain out. Though Henry is known mainly as a talented comedian, in his stage-writing debut comedy intertwines with moments of lacerating despair and anger, culminating in him dropping to his knees, unable to speak and overwhelmed by grief.
Once the letters from immigration start arriving, August tries until the very end to stay positive, joking and making everyone laugh to hide what troubles him: a smile, a mask of humour to conceal the worry, anxiety and pain underneath it. But the brief glimpses of him being detained, projected on the wall of his cosy living room, keep haunting him, as well as the rest of us.
At the end of the play, after the premonition has been fulfilled and room has turned into a cold detention cell, Henry leaves the stage to make way for some of the real victims of the Windrush scandal, showing a few filmed interviews. These are the faces and voices of a generation targeted by a system that is rotten to its core, and they are still suffering the consequences.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
August in England is at Bush Theatre from 4th May until 10th June 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.