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King Hedley II: Theatre Royal, Stratford East

June 26, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 1st June 2019).

One of August Wilson’s “The American Century” cycle, this uses descendents of characters first seen in “Seven Guitars.” A son, King Hedley II (Aaron Pierre) is trying to re-build his life after prison.

Living with mother Ruby, he schemes with friend Mister (Dexter Flanders) to corner the stolen refrigerator market, and move on to higher things.

When wide-boy Elmore (Lenny Henry) turns up to woo his mother, and Tonya (Cherrelle Skeete) arrives, things take even more sinister turns, portents commentated on by Stool Pigeon (Leo Wringer) who lives next door.

The entire cast have poor black Philadelphia nailed, with Claudette Williams a fine dialect coach and a remarkable Peter McKintosh designed backyard set.

It’s a strikingly long play – 3 hours 30, with just 20 minutes interval. There’s no disguising that there are longueurs either. Life for these people meander, and sometimes it does for the audience, as relationships are not always clear and connect – with obvious significance, but not always clearly for audiences – to off-stage back-stories.

Strong acting overcomes the most part, and the audience that afternoon was enlivened with a mis-firing gun causing much hilarity. Even better, an exchange early in the second act required reference to the mal-functioning weapon, to the joyous laughter of all present. That this all lifted the action does rather underline the lack of raw humour to lighten the pain.

For this is about unrelenting pain, and the various ways of dealing with it. Education, “you need to know” about your environment, even if from donated old newspapers. Scamming, crime, repression, religion: all are explored as options and each shown clearly for what it is in the scheme of things, the beauty of Wilson’s writing intertwining them.

Whether there is a sharper play here, if it were to lose some of what gives the unique texture, this monkey isn’t sure. It does know that this is a play to be seen if only for the acting and sense of something deeper that lingers long after the curtain falls. It’s significant, and deserves to be treated as such.

The fact it deals with the 1980s USA, when the issues it raises are relevant to London, particularly London’s Black community in 2019 is vitally important and truly upsetting. One for every politician to view, for certain.

 

4 stars.

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