‘Death of England’ review

Theatre, Drama
3 out of 5 stars
Death of England, National Theatre, 2020
Photograph: Helen Murray

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Rafe Spall gives a shattering performance in Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s frantic monologue on the English soul

Never mind ‘Death of England’, it’s the death of poor old Rafe Spall that worried me for most of this 100-minute monologue from writer Roy Williams and writer-director Clint Dyer. Spall Jr begins the show at waaaay beyond full tilt: hoarse of voice, unsteady on his feet, bawling, hollering, running and stomping, he looks like he’s about to collapse in the first five minutes and he never slows down, not for a second. He’s either Superman, or Dyer and Williams want to kill him.

It’s a remarkable if not always exactly enjoyable turn: raddled on booze, coke, grief, rage and self-loathing, his character Michael is mercurial, infuriating and frequently incoherent in a play defined by its searing amphetamine jolt: lots of raw energy, but sometimes you wish it made you feel a bit more.

‘Death of England’ concerns race, and racism and belonging, and it is quietly radical that two black writers have crafted a play about white Englishness. It sounds like a simple enough idea, but I’m not sure it’s been done before, and it’s interesting to consider all the barriers, traditions, assumptions and taboos it discreetly busts.

In terms of nuts and bolts, it’s a drama about Michael, a loud, lairy, but ultimately desperately sensitive Essex boy who is reeling from the death – and also the life – of his father, a much-respected pillar of the community and also a Brexit-supporting racist. Michael desperately craved his approval… but also subliminally recoiled from much of what he stood for. When his dad’s funeral comes along, he fucks it up royally, drunkenly calling out half the congregation and getting into a fist fight, before an unexpected encounter changes his view on his dad forever.

There are twists and turns here that might seem contrived in a more sedate drama. But they fit in perfectly with the speedy mania of the show, as we’re sucked headlong into Michael’s badly malfunctioning life and his attempt to understand his dad’s values and reconcile them with his own. 

Without giving too much away, I think the play’s moral can be summed up as ‘people are very complicated, racists included’, and I’m not sure its wilfully exhausting chassis contains any truly unexpected insights. Inextricably linked to Spall’s full-bore performance, ‘Death of England’ ultimately gives off more heat than light. Still, two black theatremakers taking such an empathetic view of the more, ah, troubled end of the white English psyche is clearly something that comes with its own power, and this work has enough heart, soul and outright guts to rise above the humdrum.

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