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A CurtainUp London Review
King Hedley II

By Ben Clover

He got the end and the beginning all planned out for you. All you got is that little bit in the middle
-- Stool Pigeon

King Hedley II

Joseph Marcell as Elmore and Nicholas Monu as King Hedley (Photo: EPO)
Eighth in August Wilson's nine play cycle illustrating the Black American experience in the Twentieth century, King Hedley II is a powerful and affecting drama reminiscent of Arthur Miller's small scale tragedies. Set in Pittsburgh in 1985, the soundtrack of early hip hop as you come in immediately lets you know where you are. Centred around ex-con King Hedley (Nicholas Monu), we see his fierce aspirations and his gradual return to crime. Unusually, this isn't the engine of the tragedy, it is family secrets and honour codes that ensure there is blood on the ground at the end of the third act.

The piece cleverly evoked the sense of possibility in this decade when a black middle class did begin to emerge. Yet in the end we also see the truth of poor people everywhere, that things never change much for the better, that to get ahead means stealing from others as poor as you and that pride is an expensive thing to have.

My only real problems with the piece are a lack of clarity in the final scene, when the fight direction made it unclear as to exactly what was going on. Sadly this blurs the focus at the climax and leaves the audience unable to understand the characters fully (although it does encourage speculation and perhaps this is the point).

The cast are uniformly excellent. Nicholas Monu brings a regal bearing to the title role but, such were the strengths of the supporting characters, that at the end it felt more like a societial sacrifice than his personal tragedy. Tonya's (Rakie Ayola) role was slight for most of the play but she tore into her centrepiece speech like it had been boiling inside her for far too long. However it is travelling hustler Elmore (Joseph Marcell) and King's friend Mister (Eddie Nestor) who really steal the show. Marcell has a presence that demands your absolute attention and his performance managed to evoke both a flawed man and someone aware of himself as an instrument of fate. As King Hedley's lieutenant Nestor was everything a good Horatio should be: loyal, aware and helpless to save his friend. Mister also has the funniest lines and delivers them with a precision the Pentagon would envy.

For a three hour piece the play does well to hold the audiences attention as strongly as it does and I look forward to the final play of the nine. The night ends almost magically as spilt blood revives a cat said to have lived since 1619, a significant date making it probably the most symbolic cat's miaow ever heard on the English stage.

Editor's Note: Interestingly, as Ben Clover saw King Hedley, Brian Stokes Mitchell, who starred in the play in the States, has gone back to his musical roots as the central character in Man Of La Mancha, restaged and directed by London director Jonathan Kent.
King Hedley (New York review)
Man Of La Mancha

King Hedley II
Written by August Wilson
Directed by Paulette Randall

With: Rakie Ayola, Pat Bowie, Joseph Marcell, Nicholas Monu, Eddie Nestor, Stefan Kalipha
Designed by Niki Turner
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Running time: Three hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7328 1000
Booking to 8th February 2003
Reviewed by Ben Clover based on 11th December 2002 performance at the Tricycle, 269 Kilburn High Road, London NW6 (Tube Station: Kilburn)
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