Interview: Lenny Henry

Wednesday 22 September 2004
reading time: min, words

'One of the many things that i've learned is that the audience don't have to be laughing all the time"

It's been two years since comedian Lenny Henry last toured this country and as the title of his new show explains, he has 'So Much Things To Say.'

In this new wide-ranging act, Henry covers a huge expanse of territory from parents, love, sex and reggae music to death, Iraq and war ('huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again...actually, better not').

Interspersing straight stand-up with a wealth of characters, including Lister, a reactionary, yet canny old shopkeeper, and Daniel, his son, a British soldier serving in Basra, 'So Much Things To Say' is a comic tour de force.  But don't just take my word for it.  When Henry premiered the show at the Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End last year, the critics were equally positive. The Daily Telegraph raved that 'for two hours, you're held transfixed by a comic reaching the height of his powers, one capable of moments of unexpected pathos and insight.'

Indeed he is. But what is perhaps the strongest aspect of 'So Much Things to Say', directed by Simon McBurney, is its sheer universality. The show chimes with people of all ages and from all backgrounds.

Taking time out from preparing for the tour, Henry is in relaxed mode. He reflects on how the new show seems to connect with people right around the world. 'I've just been touring in Australia and New Zealand, and people there kept saying to me, 'will audiences here understand the show?' But they absolutely did because it's universal and it tackles themes everyone can pick up on.

'It may be about a London family, but people from anywhere get it. It covers subjects such as birth, death, desire, heart-break, the war in Iraq and growing old. Wherever in the world I'm performing, people come up to me afterwards and say, 'yeah, that meant something to me, I've got an old relative in a nursing home too.' It strikes a chord and appeals to a wide demographic of people from twelve to seventy. I suppose that's a tribute to the universality of the show.'

It may be that Henry clicks with audiences because he has taken pains to mirror what's on their minds. 'Before writing the show,' recalls the 46-year-old comedian, 'I went round Shepherds Bush with a tape recorder asking people what they were thinking about. It was fascinating to get genuine opinions about a host of different things - like a fiftysomething Jamaican housewife talking about what the war in Iraq means to her.

'The idea was to hear the sort of voices you wouldn't normally hear on the West End stage. It's important to remember that ordinary people have opinions and if you take the trouble to ask, they are often very coherent.  Of course, sometimes they also say 'bananas are the instruments of Satan'!'

The comedian, who picked up the Golden Rose of Montreux for Lenny Henry in Pieces in 2000 and the Lifetime Achievement gong at the 2003 British Comedy Awards, continues: 'I think it's a good thing to have a comedy show which features the voices of a disparate group of people talking about the kind of things that concern us all. That's what this show is for. With the rise and rise of Reality TV shows, people clearly love watching themselves. Maybe our job is to reflect that.'

Through these characters, Henry is able to address Big Themes. 'Like any drama, the show deals with issues such as love and betrayal. Just because they seem like little people leading little lives does not make them any less valid than so-called 'grown-up' drama. They're experiencing things that we've all experienced."

Nor is Henry frightened of broaching such difficult topics for comedy as death and war. 'One of the many things that Simon [McBurney] taught me was the feeling that the audience don't have to be laughing all the time,' recalls the performer, who will be returning with a new series of his hit BBC1 series, The Lenny Henry Show, next year.

'I know that phrase is like an arrow through the heart for a comedian because we usually have to have a laugh every ten seconds. But stories can have serious as well as funny elements. It's important that the peaks aren't all just laughs, but dramatic moments too.'

Perhaps the most serious part of 'So Much Things to Say' concerns Iraq. Henry sees no problem dealing with this topic in his show; he thinks it's only right and proper that comedians should be able to take on the gravest matters of the day.  Henry admits that 'beforehand my big worry was 'how can you be funny about Iraq when it's so grim?' But you have to listen to yourself. I think that as a confused and concerned citizen, it's alright for me to express what I feel about this.

'The character of Daniel, the British soldier in Iraq, works because his characteristics are human and readily identifiable. His concerns are not 'I might be shot,' but 'what's my girlfriend doing at home?' That's something we all feel - that strong sense of missing home when we're away. They're simple, yet powerful observations. None of it is brain surgery, but I feel it is pertinent and worthwhile.'

This return to the live arena allows Henry to get back to where he belongs.  The stage is where he is at his most comfortable and his most confident, trading on his extraordinary natural rapport with people.  But that does not mean he has to go over the top in his show.  

'So Much Things To Say' displays an older, wiser Henry - as he would be the first to acknowledge.   He has reached the stage in his life and in his career where less is more. It's the surest sign yet that's he's grown up. 

'I'm now not scared of doing characters who don't appear to do very much,' Henry reflects. 'In the past, the demand was for bigger characters, from 'OK' to 'Well, Crucial' and Theophilus P Wildebeeste. They all said big things and performed big stunts. But now I'm confident enough to do less.

'You know,' he concludes with a smile of contentment, 'I'm really, really happy with what I'm doing now. I once thought character comedy was a bit transitory and wanted to do things with more depth. I looked covetously at other comedians doing movies and TV dramas. But having done all that, I now realise that if you do it well, there is absolutely nothing better than character comedy. After the show, people come up to me in the street and say, 'I loved that.'"

"I can't tell you what a kick that gives me.'

Lenny Henry is at the Nottingham Playhouse from September 27-29th

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