Thomas W. Hodgkinson

King Hedley II

By August Wilson
Theatre Royal Stratford East, London

“The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.” That’s the whole of a miniature short story by the Pulitzer-winning African-American playwright August Wilson — and it captures the mood of this searing everyday tragedy. Almost all the characters are drowning, from the titular ex-con (Aaron Pierre), who yearns to make something of his life, to his world- weary mum (Martina Laird), to her sometime beau (Lenny Henry), a trickster running out of tricks. As they meet behind a clapboard Pittsburgh home, and swap insults and stories, some of the turns are strong. Yet in Nadia Fall’s slow, so-so revival, they rarely connect. There’s little sense these characters know, let alone love, one another. The best exception comes in a spontaneous embrace between King and his best friend, Mister, before they attempt a robbery. These two are among the evening’s highlights in the way they watch, and watch out for, each other — along with Wilson’s pulsing vernacular, which sweeps from poetic to profane. As one character observes: “God’s a bad motherf*****!” It’s a good point, and it’s well, if lengthily, made.