A long, long time ago, in a former century, I worked on a project at the National Theatre identifying and celebrating the one hundred greatest plays of the 20th Century. The resulting list was rich journey through some great writing. When we got to the eighties, alongside Frayn, Churchill, Mamet and Cooney, we encountered August Wilson’s Fences – a play little known in the UK, but with a reputation as a modern American classic. Each play on the list had a reading, and amongst the actors for Fences was one Tanya Moodie, clearly too young for the role of Rose, but fiery and spirited and we chatted about how wonderful it would be if she got to play the part… one day… maybe.
Flash forward fourteen years and this weekend my usual ride to Richmond Park took me all the way through the urban savanna, beyond the trees and deer, to the quaint Richmond Theatre, where, at last, Tanya is playing Rose; she’s as fiery and spirited as ever, fully matured into the role and playing opposite a magnificent Lenny Henry as Troy. Of course, the play charts the African-American experience in the fifties, centred around Troy’s devastating revelation he was born too early to be a successful baseball player because of his race, but the heart of the drama is Wilson’s uncompromising dissection of families and fatherhood and his examination of love, faithlessness and forgiveness. Troy’s disappointments are angrily meted out on his nearest and dearest; a bitter, wronged, pained man who can tell his drinking buddy that he loves him, but can’t even tell his son that he likes him. At his side is his wife, bound by domesticity, but a wise, careful negotiator, the glue that binds the disparate family together. Betrayals and arguments pull them apart, fierce loyalty forces them back together. We’re now well past the surprise that Henry is a proper actor, and here he utterly inhabits the play and its poetry; he’s powerful, threatening and cruel when required and employs his standup skills to fuel the flights of imagination that make Troy an engaging charmer. Tanya is more than a match for him, her heart and body fully inhabiting the role, light and playful when fluttering around her husband, grounded and solid when facing up to him. Paulette Randall’s direction and the rest of the cast give full weight to the play, even when the structure and narrative go a little awry in the second half, but the pleasures far outweigh the quibbles. I’ve waited a long time to see this play in full, and it was so pleasing to discover it at last… and personally thrilling to see Tanya come full circle on her August Wilson journey. The West End transfer is in June, but I just couldn’t wait.