Comic Lenny Henry (or Sir as we should now call him) has carved out a successful stage career by fearlessly tackling roles that many would have said were outside his remit.
His Othello was astounding as was his performance in the National Theatre’s The Comedy of Errors. In August Wilson’s Fences he gave a powerhouse turn as the brutish Troy Maxson.
But tonight, at the opening of Willy Russell’s iconic Educating Rita, at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, he struggled to get it right.
His performance as the shambling, cynical, disillusioned, alcoholic career academic Frank Bryant, is timid, unsure and fails to make any impact against the overwhelmingly confident turn of Lashana Lynch as gobby hairdresser Rita.
At one point he was making such a mess of a scene that he stopped the show and walked off, taking his co-star with him, so that he could compose himself and carry on. It was done with considerable dignity but it was clear that he was having problems with the part.
This is a play with a strong female lead which becomes evident the moment Lynch hurtles onto the stage after forcing the jammed door of Frank’s university rooms.
How do you compete with a Liver-bird motormouth who presents herself as a raw lump of clay desperate to be moulded into an erudite, educated, well-read student?
The vibrant Lynch nails it in every scene in this Pygmalion story of an ambitious girl wanting to better herself through education.
The problem is that Russell doesn’t leave much room to flesh out Frank’s part. In the film version Michael Caine gave us a whisky-soaked former poet who lived in the bottom of a secretly-stashed bottle of booze.
But Lenny makes a poor drunk and an unconvincing tutor. The scenes rolled past with him swapping cardies on stage while Lynch goes from ill-fitting chain-store clobber to ethnic market wear and up-market smart while a succession of wigs charts her progress through knowledge via Forster, Blake and Chekhov.
Michael Buffong, artistic director of the Talawa Theatre Company has come up with a good production of Educating Rita for Chichester but not a great one.
There’s nothing to differentiate this from every other production I’ve seen other than him using an all-black cast.
Educating Rita runs at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre until July 25.
Lenny Henry struggles to find his form against a commanding performance by a vibrant Lashana Lynch in Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, which opened tonight at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre.