‘August in England’ review – Lenny Henry’s dancing and damning Windrush debut


Veteran comedian Lenny Henry doesn’t so much take his first step into playwrighting with August in England, but rather his first jive in a mesmerising and hilarious monologue about a man whose life is upended by the Windrush scandal – one which is a homely rebuttal to the hostile environment agenda established by Theresa May and upheld by successive Tory governments.

Henry shines as August Henderson, a 60-something avid music lover (he’s in his own band) and a part-owner of a fruit and vegetable shop. Sharing anecdotes and complaints with dry humour and a displeased tone, he isn’t afraid to be cheeky when he so pleases. We see him mock the rigid and robotic dance moves of Ms May, and at one point gets outrageously up close and personal with one of the stone plinths in the Holloway Theatre. It’s the type of comedy we’d expect from a great like Henry, and he does it so well as a performer.

With everything being so light-hearted, one does begin to wonder how smooth the transition will be into scenes of despair and injustice, but I needn’t have worried. The jokes in the script are – naturally – effortless, but equally as impressive is Henry’s handling of the tender and sombre moments, seeing his resolve tested to breaking point as his wife Clarice is diagnosed with cancer and sadly dies, but not before she sees him dancing with another woman. The work to rebuild himself and the rest of his family after such a grave mistake is deeply affecting, and only makes us more furious when the government threatens to wipe away all that work with the threat of deportation.

The sense of something sinister approaching is hinted from the outset. Cold, grey CCTV footage of August in a detention centre is projected behind him in videos designed by Gino Ricardo Green, before being dismissed by our protagonist in favour of his warm, friendly anecdotes (he does the same with the letters which start getting posted through his door – not least because he’s never been one for paperwork). Interestingly, though, the play itself puts off the introduction of the threatening letters until we’re about three-quarters of the way through the show (at least, it certainly feels that way), at which point, we’re made to believe that August – a man whose grief and loss has led to him being even more appreciative of those close to him – will have an explosive reaction to that potentially being stripped away by immigration enforcement.

He does, but bafflingly, when so much of what we’ve seen already has been accompanied with fluidity and physicality by Henry, the potency of said reaction is subdued, reduced to otherwise vivid vocal descriptions and a sudden cacophony of noise than any real force. This part of the 90-minute play is abrupt, and it’s very much meant to be, but when the moment and the emotions which come with it are built up throughout, only to be assigned such a short slice of the running time and reduced in its gravity, it’s hard not to feel a little underwhelmed.

Its central message, however, of family, community and the home, is compellingly conveyed in its co-direction by Lynette Linton and Daniel Bailey, and Natalie Pryce’s living room set design. August immediately offers some of us rum from a drinks trolley and gyrates around the stage to the tune of Jamaican classics. As his life story moves on, he takes off pictures from the wall of his children to show us, and moves furniture and cupboards offstage to prepare for a house party. The subtle breakdown of the home is masterful, especially when the time comes for August to be held in a detention centre, and his living room rug is quite literally pulled from under his feet. Even its concluding lines talk of the cruel deprivation of a sense of home by the Home Office (and I’ve just realised the laughable irony here), making August in England a emphatic and endearing debut from Henry at his very best.

August in England is now playing at the Bush Theatre until 10 June.

Relaxed and sensory-adapted performances will take place on 13 May and 1 June, captioned performances are scheduled for 18 and 27 May, and audio described performances will take place on 20 and 25 May.

Production Images: Tristram Kenton.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘August in England’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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