Lenny Henry: Cradle To The Rave

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

Music has been the love of his life, but when Lenny Henry attempted to launch a career as a credible musician in the Eighties, he was doomed to fail. As he eloquently puts it in this new tour: ‘I love music – but music just likes me.’

‘You’re a decent guy’, legendary producer Trevor Horn told him at the time, before dashing his dreams by saying true musicians have it in their blood, and he didn’t. It’s a calling, not a hobby.

It’s hard to ignore the echoes Horn’s words have with Henry’s comedy career, too. His likeability is unrivalled, and he’s a bona fide national treasure – but there’s often little in his output that suggests stand-up, as opposed to broad entertainment, is a compulsion. Between his comedy, Shakespearean acting, music, writing and shiny-floor TV presenting, where is the line between polymath and dilettante?

Cradle To Rave is, however, his most personal show yet. Built around the role music has played in his life – and performed in front of an impressive montage of 100 or so classic album covers with Henry’s face superimposed – the concept allows him to revisit defining moments, with the help of a (mostly) cool soundtrack.

Here in his home town of Dudley – no Premier Inn for him tonight – Henry gets off to a hesitant start, rather awkwardly setting up the framework of the show via his ineptitude at the piano. But once he stars reminiscing about his upbringing in this neighbourhood, things take a great leap forward.

Life with his strict mother and emotionally distant father are evocatively conjured up, with him acting West Indian inside the house and West Midlands outside in an effort to ‘h-integrate’, as his Mum always insisted he should. When short on rent, the family would throw parties, install a powerful Jamaican sound system in the lounge and charge the neighbours to bump and grind. An on, with inevitable awkwardness, to Henry losing his virginity, borrowing a mate’s passion wagon come the big night.

This whole section is a delightful piece of nostalgia. He might not be pushing the boat out in terms of comic ideas, but he paints almost filmic images, full of warmth and charm, with no greater brush than his versatile voice. It was his knack for accents and impersonations that entertained his friends, and gave him the impetus to go on stage at the open talent night held at the Queen Mary Ballroom, where he performed an Elvis number, his first time on stage. He never felt joy like it, and singing was what he wanted to spend his life doing.

Life, we now known didn’t quite turn out like that for Henry; as he found fame via the his New Faces impressionist routine and the Knockabout slapstick of Tiswas. The second half of the show charts his best-forgotten efforts at music during this time and beyond. While his erstwhile Theophilus P Wildebeaste character proved he had more than a decent voice, his success was limited to the occasional novelty single, and, a genuine highlight, backing vocals on a Kate Bush track.

But it’s harder for the audience to really go with him on this journey, which frequently risks becoming a CV of his professional life, too obviously scripted to be stand-up, too slight to be theatrical monologue. It’s hard to feel too much sympathy that his musical ambitions went unrealised, considering his comedy career was going so well. His brushes with the recording industry just don’t have the tenderness or the emotional tug of the humble teenage years. It is the difficult second half.

Perhaps inevitably for a music show from an eager-to-please entertainer, the show ended with a band; but it felt like Henry was having more fun living out every comedian’s rock-star fantasy than the audience were --– as they moved with tentative stiltedness on Henry’s command. There’s a reason why pub cover bands are best enjoyed with alcohol.

With a cruel irony, given his thwarted ambition, this is a show that gets tripped up by Henry’s desire to be a musician -– both in practice and in overemphasising this as a narrative angle. But even though Cradle To Rave is flawed, and sometimes cheesy, there are also enough touching, richly-described, and satisfyingly funny routines to suggest that at 50, Henry’s still got plenty to offer the comedy scene. If only he didn’t get distracted…

Review date: 4 Feb 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Dudley Town Hall

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