Troy's a golden role for Lenny Henry as he takes on one of theatre's landmark parts



00:15 GMT, 16 November 2012

Lenny Henry will play Troy Maxson who he calls the African-American King Lear

Lenny Henry will play Troy Maxson who he calls the African-American King Lear

Lenny Henry is about to take on one of the giant roles in the theatre: what he calls the African-American King Lear.

The actor is preparing to play Troy Maxson, a character created by the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson for his towering drama, Fences.

James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington have played Troy on Broadway, and Lenny’s well aware of what a landmark part it is.

Troy works as a rubbish collector and he’s embittered because he believes he could have had a career as a baseball player, but he wasn’t allowed to play with white players.

Troy has a wife he cheats on and a son he treats with disdain. Lenny described Troy as a bit of a monster but ‘there’s just cause’.

But it’s the family dynamic that grips you.

As Lenny noted: ‘There are shows about fathers and sons; shows about sons and fathers; but this is definitely about a husband, a father, a son and a wife. He has a wandering eye and is a strict father.’

There’s a line where the son demands to know why Troy doesn’t like him.

Troy thunders back: ‘In what rule book does it say I have to like you!’ Lenny said when he read that, ‘I really felt it in my heart of hearts’.

He explained: ‘My parents were non-hugging parents. My dad never said he loved me, never hugged me. He just put food on the table and went to work. The manifestation of love isn’t just saying: “I love you.” Troy doesn’t want his son to suffer the hurt he went through.’

Paulette Randall, one of the UK’s best interpreters of Wilson’s work, will direct the play, which begins at the Theatre Royal Bath from February 20 through March 2. It will then visit Richmond, Milton Keynes, Oxford, and Malvern and may transfer into the West End.

Playing in drag is truly hair-raising!
Simon Russell Beale dressed as Carmen Miranda in Peter Nichols's classic play Privates On Parade

Simon Russell Beale dressed as Carmen Miranda in Peter Nichols's classic play Privates On Parade

Simon Russell Beale rolled up his tracksuit bottoms and revealed perfectly smooth legs. ‘I’ve been sugared,’ he said, nonchalantly.

He then explained. ‘All the hair on my legs and arms has been removed. They use a very thick sugar solution and they rip it off, like wax. I somehow felt being sugared sounded healthier than being waxed.’

You may wonder why one of our greatest stage actors subjected himself to such painful treatment. And the answer is that it’s part of his preparation to star in Peter Nichols’s classic play Privates On Parade.

Russell Beale plays Acting Captain Terri Dennis, who leads the Army song-and-dance unit in Singapore during the Malayan emergency of 1948.

In character, Russell Beale has to dress up as Carmen Miranda, Vera Lynn and Marlene Dietrich. ‘The hair sticks through the fishnet tights and if you don’t get rid of it, it’s a problem,’ he told me.

He did admit, though, that when he looked at his legs in the mirror, he was reminded of the gerbils he and his schoolmates kept at school.

‘Those gerbils gave birth every week and they were wrinkly and skinless. My legs look like that — there’s no hair to disguise the varicose veins and lack of muscle definition,’ he said sadly.

Mind you, he moves well on those gerbil pins. Watching Russell Beale and his fellow cast members practise a number at a rehearsal room in Southwark, with the choreographer putting them through their paces and director Michael Grandage looking on, was utter delight.

Grandage explained that the idea was to drill the company in the moves until they perfected them. ‘Some of the characters can’t really dance, and it’s easier to get to that point if they’ve perfected the steps they’re not supposed to be able to dance.’

Privates On Parade is the first of the season of plays that Grandage and his partner James Bierman are presenting at the Noel Coward Theatre. Previews start on December 1.

James McAvoy, who was in a production of the show Grandage directed at the Donmar more than a decade ago, told me he and his Donmar castmates, including Roger Allam who played Captain Dennis in that show, will be going to check out the new line-up.

An all-star cast that includes Downton actor Hugh Bonneville, Call The Midwife legend Miranda Hart and award-winning stars Julie Walters and Patrick Stewart will perform a special fund-raising show of Agatha Christie’s famous whodunit The Mousetrap.

Joined by Tamsin Greig, Nicholas Farrell, Iain Glen and Harry Lloyd, the will take The Mousetrap roles for one night only on Sunday at the St Martin’s Theatre.

The production, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, will mark the show’s diamond anniversary and help raise money for Mousetrap Theatre projects, one of the country’s most influential theatre education charities.

Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard, who was given the rights to The Mousetrap for his ninth birthday, will join producer Stephen Waley-Cohen in unveiling a memorial to Dame Agatha at St Martin’s Cross. It takes the form of a giant book containing her portrait.

Watch out for…

James Floyd, who has rightly won plaudits for his performance as a London-based, gay Arab gangster in Sally El Hosaini’s film My Brother The Devil, which just won a prize at the BFI London Film Festival Awards.

Floyd is also up for a gong at the Moet British Independent Film Awards, which are being held on December 9.

My Brother The Devil marks a major breakthrough for Floyd, who told me he’s getting all kinds of good offers now from both sides of the Atlantic.

James Floyd (left) plays a London-based, gay Arab gangster in My Brother The Devil

James Floyd (left) plays a London-based, gay Arab gangster in My Brother The Devil

'I’m a really boring guy, but I try to play interesting people — like this guy in My Brother The Devil. He’s so different from me, and it shows I can do things that are extreme, and different from my experiences.

‘I’m in a nice position, thanks to Sally,’ added Floyd, who was raised in North-West London by a blond, blue-eyed English dad and a mum of Indian origin with Tamil roots who was born in Singapore.

‘A bit flavoured,’ he joked. Floyd can also be seen in Falcon, a detective drama set in Seville, which kicked off last night on Sky Atlantic.

Janet Suzman, Patrick Malahide and producer Kenith Trodd, who will take part in a special discussion about Dennis Potter’s dynamite drama The Singing Detective, which starred Michael Gambon as a pulp fiction writer channelling old comic-book gumshoe stories.

He’s in a delirious haze, thanks to treatment for a skin condition. It is, sadly, too depressing to judge modern-day TV drama by the gold standard of The Singing Detective, which was a treasure trove of fabulous writing and acting.

All six episodes will be screened at the ICA in Pall Mall on Saturday, November 24. The following day, Suzman and Malahide, who were part of the ensemble, will join Trodd to discuss the series with Dr David Bell and Donald Campbell, who are past presidents of the Institute Of Psychoanalysis.

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