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King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East | Review

Lenny Henry (Elmore) in King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo by Richard Davenport
Lenny Henry (Elmore) in King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo by Richard Davenport

The American Dream is something that is striven for by various citizens of the United States, whatever their station in life – and even those who aren’t American citizens, though that is another subject for another time. King Hedley II, set in Pittsburgh in 1985, is a fascinating snapshot of life for African Americans at that time. The six-strong cast maintain their accents throughout the running time that pushes close to the three-and-a-half-hour mark. This is helped by August Wilson’s script – when I read it, I could very easily imagine it being spoken in the same tones and emphases that this production deploys in the process of bringing those lines to life.

There’s something spiritual in many of the sayings of Stool Pigeon (Leo Wringer). Some of what he says comes across as rather fundamentalist, with his prayers sprinkled with references to God’s anger, vengeance and judgement. Then again, the world can be a cruel place, so it is hardly difficult to see how someone with a religious disposition could reach Stool’s conclusions in the light of life’s experiences. At face value, I thought a touch of the absurdist repeatedly found its way through in the off-stage character of Esther, who died, so Stool says, at the age of 366. But counting back that far would take the seemingly mystical Esther’s birth to 1619, the year in which the first African slaves arrived in what would become the United States.

The stories told in this play are very personal, and often very passionate too – in one scene, King (Aaron Pierre) and Elmore (Sir Lenny Henry) are getting hot-headed about who owed whom what. On one level it is quite an infantile argument but reading between the lines there are issues about identity, respect, recognition and restitution being brought to the surface. Violence is a recurring theme (not for nothing does this production have two fight directors amongst its creative team), considered a necessity by the likes of King, against his good friend Mister’s (Dexter Flanders) advice.

King is, essentially, a re-offender, for whom thuggery is a necessary evil in order to survive in a ‘dog eat dog’ world. It’s a viewpoint shared by some in the play but notably not by Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete), who goes out to work for a living. Not that King and Mister aren’t trying, employed casually as white goods salesmen, and in all the seriousness of this play there’s a cheeky moment when Elmore, a self-confessed hustler, niftily gets himself a refrigerator at reduced price for Ruby’s (Martina Laird) use: Ruby being King’s mother. There’s a lot packed into this play, and in Stool’s repeated references to the Almighty, one is reminded of eccentric street preachers spouting warnings about the Apocalypse. Still, the idea that the circumstances of life are not always within our own ability to control is never far away.

The set (Peter McKintosh), with unpainted brickwork and terraced housing, is quite gloriously lit (Howard Harrison). The acting is first-rate throughout, too, not far off from being a masterclass in a rigorous portrayal of a community that, in its own way, questions whether Reaganomics was doing anything substantially positive for the working classes. A little trimming of the script wouldn’t have gone amiss – audible sighs could be heard from the audience occasionally at the performance I attended as 10:15pm, then 10:30pm, then 10:45pm came and went, and some of the imagery didn’t quite have to be so obvious and elaborate. But overall, although certain moments are difficult to watch, this is a powerful and intense production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

1980s Pittsburgh, a city in decay. Against the backdrop of Reagan’s America, King, an ex-con, is trying to rebuild his life and start a family.

He’s got hopes and dreams of opening a video store and building a new life. If only he can get ten thousand dollars together, if only he can catch a break. In his dusty backyard, he plots and plans with his friend Mister, but is this all a pipe dream?

August Wilson’s touching and angry King Hedley II is a quest for redemption for one man and a whole community.

Writer August Wilson
Director Nadia Fall
Set and Costume Design Peter McKintosh
Lighting Design Howard Harrison
Sound Designer Christopher Shutt
Movement Director Shelley Maxwell
Fight Directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown of Rc-Annie Ltd
Dialect Coach Claudette Williams
Singing Coach Nia Lynn
Assistant Director Mina Barber
Casting Director Lisa Makin

Joining the cast alongside Lenny Henry, who is appearing as smooth-talking hustler Elmore, is Dexter Flanders, Martina Laird, Aaron Pierre, Cherrelle Skeete and Leo Wringer.

Written by August Wilson
Directed by Nadia Fall
Tuesday 28 May, 7.30pm
Booking to 15th June 2019


1 thought on “King Hedley II at Theatre Royal Stratford East | Review”

  1. Electrifying performances all round, which felt almost visceral at times. Martina Laird was superb in the role of Ruby. Highly recommended.

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