Lenny Henry: So Much Things To Say
Show type: Edinburgh Fringe 2003
Sometimes it seems Lenny Henry reinvents himself as often as he invents a new character.
The teenage New Faces winner peddling decidedly old-school comedy on the Black and White Minstrel Show first changed his act after attending a Comedy Store gig, deciding that he'd seen the future and becoming the politically correct act we know today.
Now, it seems, he's seen the low-key character comedy of the likes of The Royle Family, Phoenix Nights and The Office and decided that's the new zeitgeist. So he's abandoned the over-the-top caricatures of Theophilus P Wildebeest and Delbert Wilkins and the like in favour of more complex, subtle and realistic characters.
The problem with Henry's approach is that he's following fashions, rather than setting them. His approach of repackaging trends for mass consumption - no matter how well he does it - means he always remains someone liked by audiences, rather than loved by them.
Still, he has enough fans to fill the Wyndhams Theatre and, as didn't escape his notice, with an audience that was 50-50 black and white, almost unheard-of for anywhere in the West End.
The title So Much Things To Say, borrowed from Bob Marley, suggests a passionate, from-the-heart confessional, in which he finally shares opinions he's so far felt unable to voice from the point of view of Britain's most visible black face (behind Trevor McDonald, of course).
But although the show was introduced and linked by stand-up - apparently at the insistence of the director, Theatre de Complicite's Simon McBurney - whatever Henry had to say came through his characters.
In this diverse range - from the aging lothario Wolfman to the gentrified high-flier who has lost all sense of his background - Henry exhibits his brilliant abilities as an actor, deftly bringing a richness and subtlety to each role, and effortlessly switching between them.
Ironically, the only character he really seems to struggle with is that of stand-up comedian: despite his decades of experience this banter still felt too self-consciously stilted; making it hard to escape the feeling he was reading from a script. And what a lacklustre script it could be, too.
Co-written with Kim Fuller - whose credits include, erm, Spiceworld - it skirted around such broad material as the intrusiveness of mobile phones, 'what if Shakespeare had been Jamaican?' or how men and women cannot understand each other.
Henry was much better when riffing with the front row, playfully mimicking and exaggerating their responses to generate a warm, receptive mood. He may have come a long way from doing Tommy Cooper impressions in working men's clubs, but impersonations are still one of his strongest suits.
His characters, too, seemed to go for the obvious laughs a little too often, rather than letting them emerge organically from their personalities. It's as if Henry didn't have the confidence to risk too long a pauses between the punchlines; an understandable concern in a live environment.
And therein lies the problem, Henry's creations are all fascinating people, with interesting stories to tell and revealing emotions to convey - favourites include the petrified young para in Basra and the opinionated woman left sad and desperate for marriage. But a show which isn't sure if it's a showbizzy stand-up monologue or a delicate piece of one-man comedy-drama is not the best place for them.
Any one of these character studies could make an intimate little Talking Heads-style piece for TV or radio, yet here fall uneasily between the low-key, naturalistic approach that would do them most justice, and the shallowness of the quick laugh.
Henry's a skilled technician, though, and those obvious gags kept an eager auditorium more than happy from the moment he walked on stage to the contrived finale - a rather awkward and stagey affair in which Henry unnecessarily revealed the relationships between the characters in a whirlwind of voices and overacting.
Still, there's enough in Henry's latest incarnation to fuel his long-lived career for a good while yet - even if he's still holding back from really letting rip about his own thoughts. If, indeed, he has any.