WE have had celebrities on thin ice and the dancefloor, celebrities steamed up in the kitchen, celebrities in jungle trials and under the Big Brother microscope. Why not Celebrity Does Shakespeare Tragedy?

That is a disservice to the sincerity of both Northern Broadsides’ actor manager Barrie Rutter and comedian/Comic Relief campaigner/ actor Lenny Henry, but no-one can argue with the box-office clout of the big funny man going straight (in contrast to, say, Ken Dodd famously playing Malvolio in Twelfth Night). The Leeds, Scarborough and closing Halifax runs have all sold out.

Henry’s Othello is not a Victorian freakshow in the manner of sportsmen Ian Botham or Frank Bruno once doing panto down the road in Bradford. His live comedy shows may have lost their way but he has undimmed stage presence and a voice that could defy the winds.

The question was whether he could command that stage, cast aside the looseness of comic spontaneity for the rigours of iambic pentameter and find his voice for Othello. There was initial stiffness – hands held behind the back, over-startled eyes, staccato movement, rushed lines – and the man of many voices floated between the brooding West Indian Sir Vivian Richards, a Shakespearean thespian and just occasionally the familiar Dudley brogue before residing somewhere northern and soulful.

He has settled more quickly into the rhythm of theatrical speech than acting, although the more Othello’s jealousy rages, the more the two unite. Do you forget you are watching a (close-cropped, classically dressed) Lenny Henry? Not quite. Are you watching a natural Othello? No, the former "schoolboy from Dudley with Barditis" is too mechanical for that, but he does have a sense of inner turmoil and of crescendo: a case of less is Moor.

By contrast, Conrad Nelson’s Iago hits the ground running so hard, his voice so jagged, his arm movements so frenetic, that he over-pitches his delivery, becoming an irritant rather than skilled extortionist. Jessica Harris’s high-pitched, naive Desdemona is merely lightweight.

Barrie Rutter, both in his boisterous direction and grandly theatrical Brabantio, finds more comedy than to be expected in Shakespeare’s heavyweight tragedy, boosted further by an outburst of Broadsides’ drunken song and dance. By the pillow-suffocation finale, the audience laughter is at odds with the drama.

None of it can be attributed to Lenny Henry, his solemnity unbroken as he takes his bow and raises a clenched fist rather than smiles.

Othello, Northern Broadsides, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until March 14 (sold out); Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, March 17 to 21 (sold out).