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August in England at the Bush Theatre

August in England is Lenny Henry’s playwriting debut. Henry has not just written it but performs it as well. It’s a Tour de Force tragi comedy that exposes the grotesque injustices that have come to be called The Windrush Scandal. Using all of his extraordinary talent Henry has given the defining performance of his stellar career and in August Henderson has created a character who epitomises the hopes, dreams and betrayal of the post war generation of Caribbean migrants.

Lenny Henry in 'August in England' at Bush Theatre. Photo credit Tristram Kenton.
Lenny Henry in ‘August in England’ at Bush Theatre. Photo credit Tristram Kenton.

It’s a searingly visceral piece of drama that brings home the human consequences of the hostile environment deliberately created by the government to target and deport British citizens born in the Caribbean. The play is an eclectic mix of stand-up comedy, dramatic monologue, and political agitprop. Henry is more than equal to this multi-tasking role as we know from his career as far back as New Faces some fifty tears ago now. He is actor, writer, political campaigner and voice of the Caribbean / Black British community all rolled into one. And in August in England, he has found a perfect outlet for everything he wants to say about black people and this country.

I would say it’s as important a play as the 1956 production of Look Back in Anger, at The Royal Court. It’s a watershed moment. The Coronation of King Charles III is being billed as a celebration of our “community of communities.” Well, the treatment of the Caribbean / Black British community as revealed by August In England should give us all pause for thought.

August in England starts off as a Channel 4 episode of Desmond’s (comedy high jinxes and banter) morphs into Kafka’s The Trial (bureaucracy, red tape,) and ends as Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (slow impending inevitable outcome). We enter into the world of August Henry a sixty-something Jamaican who has lived in England (West Bromwich to be precise) for the past 52 years. Henry wonderfully dramatises the two sides of his character as he switches naturally between Jamaican patois (rahtid, sucking of teeth,) and Black Country slang. He is a West Bromwich Albion fan. (The Albion theme tune is ‘Liquidator’ by Harry J All-stars, a perfect mix of English and Jamaican culture, Henry gets the audience to join in clapping and singing: West Brom. Albion of course is the ancient name for England. Although August is an Albion fan, Albion (England) does not return the love.

Indeed the play as it unfolds is about the way Albion turns into Babylon. Who would’ve thought that the National Front’s dream of repatriation would become official government policy? But that’s what August in England shows actually happened. We all know Henry can do comedy – less well known is his tragic side, as it were. Here he gives a master class on the psychological disintegration and despair of a man caught in a vortex of impersonal bureaucratic language and paperwork. The most terrifying weapon in the bureaucratic armoury is of course the brown envelope. The dreaded letter from the state machine which always comes in a brown envelope. Henry’s warm language of intimacy and humour comes smack up against the cold impersonality of official ease. At the end of his tether “was this written by a Dalek” August cries in agony and baffled outrage as yet another letter arrives. The brown envelopes here carry the same emotional terror as the off-stage sound of an axe cutting the trees in the Cherry Orchard. In both plays the inexorable hangs like a sword of Damocles over the head of the tragic protagonist. The final scene is a match for anything in Chekhov or Beckett in its haunting evocation of pity and fear. This is an important play.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

You never allow me tell my story. I been trying to tell it someone and nobody listenin
Charming, flawed, and with the gift of the gab, we all know a man like August Henderson. Between his three kids, devoted wife-to-be, and part-ownership of a fruit and veg shop, he is proud of the life he has built since landing in his beloved West Bromwich.

So, when faced with deportation to a country he has no memory of, he isn’t prepared to go quietly. Listen up, he is ready to tell his own story.

Poignant and hilarious in equal measure, August in England gives insight into the lives impacted by the injustice of the Windrush scandal.

Written and performed by Lenny Henry in his playwriting debut, the celebrated actor and comedian brings his vast talents onto the stage in this intimate one-man show.

A Bush Theatre production
August In England (until 10th June)
Written and performed by Lenny Henry
Directed by Lynette Linton and Daniel Bailey

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  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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