We went to see August In England at Bush Theatre. Earlier today there was a message that this was being changed to an “Open Dress Rehearsal” due to technical problems and we could reschedule… but that’s happened a couple of times before at Bush Theatre and it wasn’t noticeable, except maybe with Clutch which had to change a cast member at the last minute.
The show is in the main auditorium, arranged as a 3-sided set. The centre starts off as the front room of someone who settled down a few decades ago and hasn’t bothered too much with new technology.
The notice about being offered drinks refers to Lenny offering a few glasses from the trolley at the start. As the show proceeds this stage set is dismantled gradually – pictures are taken off the back wall, letters accumulates and are shovelled aside, and eventually all the units are removed and the carpet is pulled away for the final scenes in a detention unit with a single chair, switching to back-projection of CCTV footage and videos of interviews. After the end a single message is projected.
The show is a single monologue by August Henderson, “black, sixties” as he is described in the script. Although the cover of the play script shows him working in a greengrocers, this is only referred to and never seen on stage. As the notes make clear, the delivery is written to switch back and to between West Indies and West Midlands accents.
The switches between accents follow the status that August is being assigned in his two countries. Recalling his time as a young boy with his parents first in London and later Dudley, he has a Jamaican accent as that as the outsider he is treated as. But once he is talking about the familiar world he is at home in, he talks like a Midlander. Jamaican returns when his identity is put in question, either when wandering away from his wife Clarice, or suddenly having his British residency and Leave To Remain doubted in 2014, after 52 years living in the UK.
August’s life story is work, love, and loss, as family members get old and leave or die. He has memories of overt racism at school and out on the streets with the National Front in the 60s and 70s, but the anoymous official nastiness of the brown envelopes cascading down from the ceiling is deadlier as it ends up with him taken away for possible deportation. Some of the reference points in his musings can be dated – Ready Brek “glow” adverts can’t have been on TV for 40 years now, surely? – but that’s entirely in character for an old Dad who can’t really get the hang of text messaging and the new ways of dating, when he tries again at a relationship after becoming a widower. However he is up to date in observing the decline of town centre shopping arcades in the Midlands towns: “…past the massage parlour, the slimming clinic, the acupuncture studio, and this new sex shop for men, Dan Summers.”
In addition to the final grim moments at risk of being thrown out of the country, there is a sequence of interviews with victims of the Windrush scandal. The final visual sequences are not quite as envisaged in the text, but scripts are not always the final version. Perhaps this is where the technical problems occurred and it will change to the slightly more elaborate climax. And if you’re old enough to remember them, it revisits but also revises the old “Deakus” character sketches that Lenny did on his shows in the mid 80s. August is a strong man who can remember and is not forgetting who he is and has been.