Lenny Henry: Where You From?

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

There can be no doubting the affection people have for Lenny Henry. He’s greeted enthusiastically as he takes to the stage in Devon, and his opening banter – predictably enough about how he’s the only black person in these far-flung parts – receives gales of laughter.

He is an irresistibly warm performer, full of charm and charisma. He always seems such a thoroughly decent bloke, full of good humour and easy laughter.

Yet you’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint anything truly outstanding in his career. Chef? Three Of A Kind? His own sketch shows? They’re all jolly enough, but hardly going to feature on anyone’s list of the greatest TV comedy ever made. And so it is with the Where You From? tour – disappointing material indulged simply because we all so enjoy being in the company of loveable, famous, Len.

The theme, as suggested by the title, is about the roots that define us, although it is not strictly adhered to. For Lenny, this means home-spun anecdotes about donning his Sunday best to go to evangelical church, or the beatings he endured at the hands of his mother ‘for his own good’. It’s Peter Kay territory, this, nostalgically reminding us of shared experiences about, say, the difference between men and women (the former, it transpires, hate foreplay, as if you haven’t heard itbefore).

He appeals to the general, rather than the specific, skating over anything too personal. Being the only black kid in his group of schoolfriends is simply an excuse for him to say ‘guess which one I was?’ in an old photograph – and mock the Seventies hairstyles of the rest of them. Similarly he only superficially touches on the climate of casual racism when he shlepped around the working men’s clubs circuit in an earlier, unenlightened era. All we get is a few easy wisecracks at the expenses of his ignorant ex-colleagues, then we move briskly on.

Simple gags form another touchstone of this show. As he tours, he’s recording a BBC show about regional humour, getting members of the public to record their favourites in a ‘joke booth’ in various shopping centres, the best getting an airing in the theatre. These pub gags go down the best of the night – which must be disconcerting for Henry’s team of writers. Lenny himself cracks more than a few of these himself, even doing several of them in Tommy Coooper’s voice for old time’s sake – and to prove anything said in that famous throaty baritone is automatically funny.

The third strand of this show, alongside the gags and the reminiscences, are the characters. Henry returns to the family he created for his last show, So Much Things To Say: Neville Lister, the grumpy shopkeeper, his quietly feisty wife, their squaddie son in Iraq…. In his performance, Henry brings them all to distinctive life, perfecting the mannerisms and voices to make them seem fully-fleshed creations. But again he’s let down by a lacklustre script that makes only cursory nods to characterisation. When the wife starts talking about men’s obsessions with breasts, for example, it’s stand-up, pure and simple, that could have sat quite happily in Henry’s usual patter. What’s the need of a character?

There are a few smiles to be had en route, and no one should underestimate the power of personality. But this talented, immensely likeable performer is burdened with a formulaic below-par script that plays it far too safe. The question for Lenny is not so much Where You From? but What You Doing?

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Barnstaple, Devon. February 7, 2007

Review date: 7 Feb 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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