Death of England – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writers: Clint Dyer and Roy Williams

Director: Clint Dyer

“Time and place,” says the father of Rafe Spall’s character, Michael, in this blistering monologue. “Time and place.”

This phrase comes up when the father has been admonishing Michael’s little sister, Carly, for expressing racist sentiments towards her brother’s best friend Delroy. It reveals much about the complex attitudes at play: here, throughout, reported speech, we see a man who expresses attitudes about “taking our country back”, but would never say such things to someone’s face.

Life is swirling around Michael. Or rather, death is; his father’s sudden and unexpected death has hit the 39-year-old divorcé hard, and in his grief he is attempting to hold himself together with cocaine and vodka. As Spall careers about the stage, reeling off anecdotes about his life and his father’s interactions with Delroy’s mother, the complexity of Michael’s character comes to the fore.

This is a man who lives and plays with friends of all races, but who cannot help but be influenced by his father’s nationalism. Writers Clint Dyer and Roy Williams tie together white nationalism, support for the England football team and Brexit to paint a believable portrait of a man who Michael clearly loves, despite having so many monstrous traits.

After a spectacularly dreadful funeral service, in which a coked-up, drunk Michael berates all the congregants and confronts them with some of the ugliness present in the man they have come to mourn, comes a twist: a stranger offers Michael a glimpse of a part of his father’s life which had remained hidden, and causes the son to reassess everything he thought he knew.

Lesser writers may have used such a revelation to reveal a prince within the beast; but as Michael explores new sides to his deceased father, he uncovers yet more complexity. The portrait is not flipped, but some of the shadows are painted in.

What this does to Michael is expressed beautifully by Spall. Starting off as a brash, engaging talker – directly addressing the audience sitting beneath Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and Ultz’s Cross of St George-shaped walkways, offering them biscuits and sniffs of cocoa butter – we see that he has no idea who he is, and the persona he has adopted is failing him.

Dyer and Williams suggest that the root of these characters’ racism is a reaction to failure, in life, in football and beyond; while not excusing their behaviour, understanding it is the key for the next generation to break the cycle. Some of the writers’ plot developments feel contrived, and the finale gives a sense of closure for Michael that does not feel completely earned.

But while “people are complicated” may not be the most sophisticated of morals for a National Theatre production to portray, it does at least have the benefit of being true. And the furious truth of the writing, and of Spall’s compelling performance, lingers into the night.

Runs until 7 March 2020.

The Reviews Hub Score

A furious truth

The Reviews Hub - London

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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