Comedian Lenny Henry will this month be giving Hackney Empire audiences some comic relief when he stars in Rudy’s Rare Records, a Radio 4 series adapted for stage.
The play is a comedy set in an old reggae record shop in Birmingham and features three generations of a British Jamaican family who are constantly at loggerheads.
A live band will perform a soundtrack of classic reggae while shop owner Rudy Sharpe (Larrington Walker) and his son Adam, played by Henry, try to stop developers from flattening the shop and building a supermarket in its place.
Lenny Henry conceived of Rudy’s Rare Records, which first aired in 2008, as a “black High Fidelity”, says Danny Robins, the show’s writer and co-creator.
“It’s inspired by people he’d known and the record shops he’d hung out in as a kid,” he says. “I’d spent most of my mis-spent youth in record shops as well and the idea instantly clicked for me.”
Robins does not have a Jamaican background, but being surrounded by members of the cast has given him huge insight into the country’s slang and heritage.
“You do your research and I’ve been out to Jamaica, but just sitting around in rehearsals hearing the guys talk about their childhood is something that gives me loads of ideas.
“In rehearsals the guys might say that’s not quite the right idiom or it’s not the right kind of slang, and the director [Paulette Randall] has this incredible encyclopedia of slang from her mother. Patois is an incredibly inventive language.”
After four series of Rudy’s Rare Records, Robins and Henry tried to get a pilot episode commissioned for television. When that looked unlikely, they approached Susie McKenna, artistic director of Hackney Empire, about a stage version.
“She was just instantly very enthusiastic about it and wanted to make it happen,” recalls Robins.
But while writing the play, television executives decided to commission the pilot after all, which is due to be broadcast early next year on BBC1. It leaves Robins developing the show on two different fronts, which poses new challenges.
“A half-hour radio sitcom is essentially a plot with lots of jokes in and there’s only so much character development you can do,” he says.
“In a play less happens than in a sitcom episode, but the characters go on a bigger emotional journey. You want the laughs but the audience also wants to think and be moved a bit.”
Writing a stage play also appealed to Robins because it meant tackling weightier issues. Father and son relationships are at the show’s core. Henry has described his own father as being like a copy of the Daily Mirror with arms and legs, as he never put the newspaper down long enough to talk, and Robins describes having a difficult relationship with his own dad.
“I think for both us it was something that we wanted to explore, and certainly in the play the difficult relationships between these three generations of men is crucial.”
The plot also revolves around the demise of the high street, the record shop’s tussle with a developer mirroring the David v. Goliath struggles waged by small businesses against larger corporations.
“I think that’s something that will ring true with a lot of people as well,” says Robins.
Live music will feature throughout, with songs by Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and the Sugar Hill Gang amongst others interspersed with the action.
“I went to see The Commitments the other day and just that impact of great songs that we know in a theatre space makes your hair stand on end and has you standing up and clapping by the end. If we can achieve anything like that I’ll be pleased.”
Rudy’s Rare Records is at Hackney Empire, 291 Mare Street, E8 1EJ from 24 September – 5 October