Death of England: Closing Time – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writers: Clint Dyer and Roy Williams

Director: Clint Dyer

Time has been called on the uneasy alliance between the Fletcher and Tomlin families; it is Last Orders and time for Carly and Denise to take to the stage. The Death of England series has been the most significant play cycle of the twenty-first century, a four-part exploration of British, Black British, Caribbean and urban identities, masculinity, working-class disillusionment with contemporary society in the past 30 years and the power of mixed-race relationships that causes old and new worlds to collide. And now it is over, with one last fiery exchange and a glorious night at the theatre.

In previous editions, best friends Michael and Delroy have told their versions of events, now Carly – Michael’s sister and the mother of Delroy’s baby – and Delroy’s mum Denise have scores to settle and their own truths to tell. Their love-hate relationship is the result of their long family history, arguments won and lost, lives lived and changed as two different families find they have nothing and everything in common.

Clint Dyer (who also directs) and Roy Williams have constructed an electrifying and fulfilling final chapter with all the bitterness of tricky in-law (or in-sin, as described here) connections and also respect between two women who will barely admit it. There is no need to have seen the three earlier chapters, although there is greater depth if you have. The writers employ similar devices – flashbacks, impersonations and periods of uninterrupted monologue staged on Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ’s cross-shaped set peppered with memory prompts that the two characters utilise to represent the wider family, all of whom are sharply drawn and, in the case of Michael and Delroy, previously known to the audience.

Each chapter has told a different part of the developing Fletcher-Tomlin family dynamic, and this finale moves the story on again, as the beloved florist-meets-Caribbean takeaway is about to be sold and more than one dream evaporates with it. Infused with pointed discussions and use of vocabulary, Dyer and Williams mix London slang with Caribbean patois to explore dual heritage, complex assimilation of identities that merge and reform through language and the right to belong to and even speak for particular groups.

The layered structure of memories and stories is seamlessly managed as both Carly and Denise slip into different levels of their history by impersonating other members of the family. Both have appeared as semi-caricatures in Michael and Delroy’s earlier monologues and now both women exact revenge, mockingly recreating conversations with the men while Denise even has a much kinder crack at a Carly impersonation. None of this is secret from the other, the play flipping between monologue and duologue repeatedly, both speakers almost always onstage, hearing, commenting, recasting the acknowledged connection with the audience.

There is a huge amount to unpack in Death of England: Closing Time; relationships between a mother and her son, the complexities of a mixed-race relationship when everyone has a tendency to say the wrong thing, the burden of inherited politics and the struggle to be heard, but this extended finale – running to 2.5 hours with brief intermission – fizzes and crackles with arguments, life, energy and the deep character-based reality that Dyer and Williams have so carefully constructed.

There is no one who could inhabit Carly as perfectly as Hayley Squires and the part may have been written just for her. Squires is an extraordinary and powerful stage performer as her previous roles in Jamie Lloyd’s Pinter at the Pinter season and Benedict Andrews’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof have demonstrated. Squires gives an assured comic performance here, slipping in and out of impressions, at ease with the audience and evoking a huge emotional range as her character’s tendency to get carried away and talk without thinking creates a sorrowful final act. Carly grapples with the racist inheritance of her family, beams with her deep love for Delroy and Denise, and acknowledges not always being the person she aspires to be. Squires just is Carly and the whole room responds to her.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster is just as fascinating as Denise, a heroic performance stepping into the breach when original cast member Jo Martin fell ill. Still script in hand, the effect of the character is by no means lessened, Duncan-Brewster’s Denise is sharp and vital, weighed down by the microaggressions she endures every day and irritated by the lack of nuance she observes in her white daughter-in-sin. With a physics A-level and an á la carte catering diploma, Denise rages against the broader context and her personal situation, but she too finds solidarity in Carly’s proximity and Duncan-Brewster is only going to get better as the run plays out.

And sadly, it really is Closing Time and the Death of England cycle finishes with an ending and possibly a new kind of beginning being forged. Are Dyer and Williams really done with this world they have created because audiences may not be? Michael, Delroy, Carly and Denise feel like real people, people we know who have a complicated past, but they also have a future. So let’s hope there may be one last lock-in, a chance to see the whole cycle staged in repertory so we can spend a few more hours with the wonderful, glorious Fletcher-Tomlins one last time.

Runs until 11 November 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Electrifying and fulfilling

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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