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An Evening With Lenny Henry, Watford Colosseum, review: fans will relish this charming show

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Lenny Henry
Full-bodied performance: Lenny Henry Credit: David Jensen/PA

The “An Evening with…” format is an odd one. At best, as Ian McKellen is currently proving in the West End, it can be the perfect summation of a remarkable life and career. At worst - and it would be cruel to name examples - it’s a way for an ageing star to sell tickets without bothering to write an actual show.

An Evening with Lenny Henry, I’m relieved to say, is much closer to the former. Yes, it’s unashamedly an exercise in flogging his book: Henry waggles a copy of his memoir Who Am I, Again? early and often. But for its first hour (the second is a Q&A) this is a full-bodied performance, bursting with charm. He’s certainly not just coasting.

While his autobiography covers the years 1958 to 1980 (“birth to Tiswas”), this show takes us from his subsistence farmer mother’s decision in 1957 to leave Jamaica for “paradise - or Dudley” to the day when a 15-year-old Len bunked off school to audition for talent show New Faces, launching his career. 

It’s a compelling story: we hear about early brushes with racism, his mother’s insistence that her children “h’intigrate” with the locals, the time he accidentally set fire to his house, and the surprising way he was introduced to his biological father - a twist it would be unfair to spoil here.

Occasionally, Henry reads directly from the autobiography - usually for the sombre moments, perhaps to give the impression he’s put great care into getting each word of those more difficult stories right. For the most part, though, he’s off-book, bringing a freewheeling energy to what is nonetheless an artfully scripted monologue.

“I’m 61 years old,” he sighs at one point, before turning to his grey-haired audience. “If I’m 61, how old does that make you?” One could guess the target crowd’s age from the sheer amount of Sixties and Seventies nostalgia he’s thrown in to please them (remember The Man from UNCLE lunchboxes?), but you’d never think the trim and agile Henry was old enough for a bus pass. 

He prowls the length of the stage, he dances - at one point bursting into song - and, as you’d expect from a former impressionist, he does all his family’s voices with gusto, even leading the crowd in a call-and-response imitation of his mother’s howling laugh. An onstage projector features aww-inspiring childhood photos, and Sixties-style comic strip versions of his childhood memories. It’s a good fit for his broad-strokes, wham-bam storytelling style. Recalling how he was moved and shocked to learn about his father, he says: “At this moment it’s like I’ve been flipped by a cosmic spatula.” Boffo.

After the interval, Henry is in conversation with his old friend and sometime joke-writer Jon Canter. Don't expect a grilling. That it’s the same interviewer every night erodes any pretense of spontaneity; a chance for the audience to ask questions might have generated more interestingly off-the-cuff replies. The focus is on his recent achievements - including completing a film studies PhD, and the 2009 Othello that reinvented his career as a serious actor. (His impression of a Shakespeare workshop with gruff director Barrie Rutter is, unexpectedly, the funniest moment of the evening). 

The second half’s retreat into a Q&A format comes as a disappointment after the exuberant one-man show that precedes it. But Henry’s fans will relish it all the same - and, honestly, who else would be seeing this show? It’s essentially critic-proof. An Evening with Lenny Henry is exactly that. If you’re one of his many devotees, that’s all the recommendation you need.

Lenny Henry is at the Anvil, Basingstoke (01256 844244), tonight and touring