British comedian Lenny Henry is pushing himself to new heights. First he tackled the lofty tragedy of Shakespeare’s Othello to acclaim on the London stage. “Lenny’s Shakespeare surprisingly stands up,” punned The Guardian when reviewing the reviews of famously tough English critics.
Now he’s letting loose his suppressed inner-Elvis, playing a little piano and singing a little Blueberry Hill and other snatches of song between stand-up reminiscences in his new “sense memory” comedy Cradle to Rave, which tackles his thwarted musical ambitions.
Perhaps music just got in the way. Not so long ago, the now 53-year-old entertainer used music to stir his dark side as the eponymous Othello in Shakespeare’s tale of murder, sexual jealousy and race hatred.
At each interval, Henry would don noise-cancelling headphones to listen to bone-crunching gangsta hip-hop, some loud Ice Cube and Biggie Smalls tracks “to get into misogynist, wife-killing mood” for his character, he explains on the line from London.
But one night at interval, he looked up to see fellow actor Andy Cryer, who played Montano, trying to get his attention. “Lenny,” said Cryer, as Henry finally stopped nodding his head and removed his headphones, “I think the show started five minutes ago”.
Henry bolted to the stage, where two actors playing Emilia and Desdemona were making long work of their embroidery to pad for time, waiting Othello’s delayed arrival.
Shakespeare via more than three decades of standup comedy may have taken a very different hue however if Henry’s secret teenage ambition to be Elvis or Marvin Gaye in his Let’s Get It On phase had taken hold.
In 1975 Henry had performed Jailhouse Rock in an open spot for singing tryouts at the Queen Mary Ballroom – he’d been too nervous to tell jokes – but it was his impersonation of bumbling sitcom character Frank Spencer on television’s New Faces that set him on a comedy career instead.
Music had been “currency” among his mates, the way blokes communicated in the West Midlands county of Dudley, where Henry grew up pretty much the only black guy in his circle.
“That’s the great thing about music,” says Henry, “whatever you do for a job, in your real life with your real friends what you mainly communicate with is your love of music or your love of food because it’s visceral and pleasurable, and music affects many of your senses.”
His Jamaican-born parents had immigrated to Britain before Henry was born. His mother Winnie listened to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis and country and gospel; his father Winston listened to Fats Domino, but Henry mostly remembers his father’s presence in the living room armchair as a pair of legs and feet on the either side of the Daily Mirror.
“I don’t know what it was about 70s dads,” Henry muses. “It was almost like a Victorian thing: not talking to their children, not hugging their children, not telling their children they loved you. It was sort of like being in the house of the man of mystery, you know?”
Henry did manage to sing on stage in the 1980s with Squeeze musician Jools Holland, and sang backing for Kate Bush on her track Why Should I Love You? He liked Bush – she cooked him scrambled eggs in the studio – but his voice was mixed down so far in the recording that you can’t detect him.
Finally, the English record producer Trevor Horn choked off Henry’s musical ambitions when Henry auditioned for him; the story is told in Cradle to Rave.
This musical comeback has been brewing since Henry turned 40, when he paid for piano lessons for himself and his “very musically talented” daughter Billie, now 20, whom Henry and his ex-wife, comedian Dawn French, adopted during into their 25-year marriage.
Are he and French still mates? “Certainly we’re good mates; we’ve got a child remember so we have to stay friends because we have to bring up our daughter.” His old joke Sade was their only common musical ground is not quite true, he says.
No regrets about being the “greatest singer the UK never had”, as per the promotional guff? He laughs. “There was a certain realisation I was all right but I wasn’t that great,” he says. “I’m not sure I’d want to be touring Belgium with one hit record under my belt.”
CRADLE TO RAVE
June 28-29, 8pm
State Theatre, 49 Market Street, Sydney
TICKETS 9373 6655 or ticketmaster.com.au, $84-$109
TRAVEL Between Pitt and George streets, City Centre monorail or Town Hall station
SHOW Stand-up comedy with snatches of singing and piano
STARS Lenny Henry
CRITICAL BUZZ Gentle, amiable charm