‘Death of England: Delroy’ – the NT’s thrilling comeback play returns online for 24 hours only
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Michael Balogun offers a star-making turn in this fast-paced study of Black Englishness
Before closing on its opening night due to the second lockdown, ‘Death of England: Delroy’ was filmed. It will now stream for free for 24 hours only on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel, starting at 8.30pm on November 27 (what would have been the show’s final performance at the NT). It has been confirmed that it will return to the NT as a live show in spring 2021.
If ever there were a play that fought tooth-and-claw for life, it’s ‘Death of England: Delroy’. Battling through the hurdles of social distancing to be the first show to reopen the National Theatre, ‘Delroy’ is Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s follow up to their searing ‘Death of England’ (from last year, though it feels like millennia ago now).
‘Hamilton’ man Giles Terera was to star, but dropped out due to injury, handing the role to his understudy Michael Balogun. And its press night turned out to be its last night: due to the second lockdown it both opened and closed on Wednesday November 4. Nonetheless: it’s a triumph, and hopefully we’ll be seeing it again before long.
Although it’s a standalone piece, ‘Delroy’ carefully mirrors the first play, which starred Rafe Spall as Michael, white best friend to the Black Delroy. Both plays are high-velocity one-man-shows about working-class men looking for their place in modern England, performed on near-identical runway sets from designer Ultz. It’s only the bigger theatre, the perspex screens, the (deliberately) sparser audience and the signs about ‘social racial distancing’ that indicate something major has changed.
In what is surely a star-making performance, Balogun is superb as Delroy, a ball of wounded male pride and abject frustration who is having a very bad day indeed. After missing 19 calls from his girlfriend Carly’s mum (Carly being Michael’s sister), Delroy is finally on his way to hospital to witness the birth of his first child. Unfortunately, he is jumped on by a trio of police who have probably mistaken him for somebody else, or are just bored. He swears at them. They take him to jail. Things go downhill some more.
Although ‘Delroy’ is pointed programming that chimes with the summer of Black Lives Matter - and references it in passing - this was written beforehand and is free of the movement’s US-centricity. It is a study in wounded working-class Black English manhood, about a man less concerned about his physical safety than struggling with the attritional mental effects of feeling he doesn’t belong.
Balogun’s Delroy isn’t quite as physically OTT as Spall’s Michael was - but he is superb at suggesting his barely-suppressed inner turmoil. Mentally he twitches and writhes, a man constantly on the cusp of a scream or a sob. The police don’t hurt him, physically - but he is scalded by the shame feels as they lead him away, agonised by their policing of his language as they lead him off like a naughty schoolboy.
And his pain hinges on two acts of betrayal, by Michael and Carly, both of whom tell him that he doesn’t belong as either an English man or a Black man. They both apologise, in their way. But in their one scene ‘together’ (it is of course just Balogun on stage) a cleaned-up Michael can’t fathom understand how much he hurt Delroy, how his words cut deep to his friend’s most existential insecurities, how they can’t be unsaid.
Like its predecessor, it’s a rollercoaster ride of a play, directed by Dyer at terrific pace and wittily enlivened by Jackie Shemesh’s staccato lighting and the hidden surprises of Ultz’s set. And like Michael’s story, it also has a conciliatory ending: I suspect there may be who would prefer something a little more call to arms; certainly it reaches a conclusion I doubt a US playwright would were they writing about America. Unless you are an extremely racist white person, I doubt it’ll make you feel too bad about being English, put it that way.
Whatever the case, is it heart-in-the-mouth entertainment, and I’m sorry you can’t see it. But hopefully it won’t be too long: the performance was filmed, and in remarks at the start NT boss Rufus Norris intimated it will appear online in short order. Live theatre must go back to sleep once again. But hopefully ‘Delroy’ will be back to disturb England’s dreaming.
The NT could have returned with another David Hare play. Instead, it’s staging a brand-new work, written and directed by Black British playwrights Clint Dyer and Roy Williams. ‘Death of England: Delroy’ will be a sequel-of-sorts to their production ‘Death of England’, a considered take on the current racism discourse that actually addressed the dynamics of British social class, a key factor in distinguishing the UK experience from that of our comrades across the pond.
Told through the eyes of Michael, a white, working-class man – played by a charming Rafe Spall – the first play was clever in the way it forced us to reckon with the flawed ‘good-people-cannot-be-racist’ argument.
The sequel was initially announced with Giles Terera – who won an Olivier for his performance in the original West End cast of ‘Hamilton’ – in the lead role. Sadly, Terera is currently in recovery following recent (not Covid-related) emergency surgery. And so up steps another fine homegrown acting talent, Michael Balogun, to take the lead.
The character of Delroy featured heavily in ‘Death of England’, but only in name. We got to know him through the eyes of his childhood friend, Michael. Here, Delroy’s story takes centre stage. He is arrested while on his way to visit his girlfriend in the hospital. During his time in custody, he reflects on the moments in his life that might have led to a different future – giving us an exploration of a Black working-class man confronting his relationship with Great Britain.
If ‘Death of England’ is anything to go by, Dyer and Williams have delivered a play we urgently need, and one we’ll likely be talking about for years to come, when the closure of London’s theatres will be a distant memory. Preview by JN Benjamin @reviewsandtings