August in England

Lenny Henry
Bush Theatre
Bush Theatre (Holloway Theatre)

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Lenny Henry as August Henderson Credit: Tristram Kenton
Lenny Henry as August Henderson Credit: Tristram Kenton
Lenny Henry as August Henderson Credit: Tristram Kenton

August in England is an indictment of the ”hostile environment” policy introduced by Theresa May which saw thousands of people who had arrived in the UK as part of the Windrush generation, who then automatically had British citizenship, deported or threatened with deportation because they didn’t have passports or the “right” documentation. It not only wrecked their lives but those of their families and others close to them. The play is an outcry of protest and pain told through a personal story that is often also hilarious.

Sir Lenny Henry has written books and for film and TV but this is his first stage play. It takes the form of a ninety-minute monologue that traces August’s story from his arrival in England, an eight-year-old travelling on his mother’s passport, through school days, joining a teenage ska band, setting up a greengrocer’s shop, raising a family, living through good times and tragic ones as when his wife Clarice gets cancer and he sees her appearance going from Oprah to Diana Ross in two months.

Like Sir Lenny himself, August is a Black Country boy, raised in West Bromwich but when he first got to know Clarice, he describes dancing with her as “top half Black Country but the bottom half pure Jamaican—y’overstan’?” He moves to snatches of Reggae and ska (teenage August was in a ska band) with the same vitality that he moves between accents, West Brom or Jamaican, to fit the character or situation to which he is referring. His experience in stand up helps him hone rapport with the audience along with a performance that is full of raw, honest feeling.

The loss of Clarice is devastating but agonising toothache introduces him to dentist’s receptionist Vilma and hopes of new happiness and his children now seem in a good place when, after fifty-two years in the UK, official letters start arriving that question his right to be here. ”Then,” as August puts it, “it all turn to shit.”

Co-directed by Daniel Bailey and Lynette Linton, it is staged very simply on a thrust stage but, though a ninety-minute monologue, it never feels static. Henry invests August with warm, fallible humanity and tells his story with a lot of laughs, but the government’s action turns him into a figure of baffled incomprehension awaiting deportment. Video statements by real-life victims of this bureaucratic injustice and cruelty form a coda to but the play makes it an impact that doesn’t need documentary addition.

Like On the Ropes earlier this year (about Home Office treatment of boxer Vernon Vanriel), August in England sends its audience out angry at cruel bureaucracy and government policy but celebrating a powerful performance.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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