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FringeReview UK 2020

Death of England

National Theatre, London

Genre: Contemporary, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Solo Play, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Dorfman


Low Down

Chris Dyer directs, Death of England co-written with Roy Williams, designed by Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ. Lighting design’s by Jackie Shemish and Co-Sound Designers Pete Malkin and Benjamin Grant. Movement’s by Lucy Cullingwood, Dialect Coach Hazel Holder. Additional voices by Nitin Ganatra and Larry Lamb. Ends March 7th.


A cruciform blood-red, St George crucified. A moment later Rafe Spall in a white t-shirt crouches, shadow-boxes and leaps in lightning; caught like so many Francis Bacon freeze-frames. If it’s the death of something, Roy Williams and Chris Dyer (who also directs), determine the Death of England will always be on the pitch. Where it all starts, ends, and ends again. And there’s bananas from heaven. Or hell.

There’s only so many things you can say with flowers Michael Fletcher discovers, taking over his late father’s florists, unasked. The flowers emerge and stay on sentry-duty throughout. Alan died as England just failed to go through in the last World Cup. ‘We’ve been rubbish since 1966’ that latest myth-marker of national decline. Michael’s not half the man his father Alan was, his family (and father) say, roiling him up as the incarnation of failure: non-voting, emotionally impotent, divorced.

You’d hardly think so in the trip-tongued trigger-worded fusillade Spall delivers, blistering off a veneer of politesse as he yobs through to his truth’s confusions like Berkoff’s Eddie from Greek waking into a futuristic dystopia: us. During a buttonholing 100 minutes he speaks as those characters, or as Michael to and of them. His patter burrs into patronizing yawl, or as Michael confesses there’s a Cockney-patois mix with Denise the mother of his friend Delroy. Who teaches father and son a thing or three about racial profiling, like who’ll get the blame for stealing a school sign Alan’s secretly rather proud of his son for thinking up.

But Delroy will get it. As writers of colour Williams and Dyer – who developed this work from a germinal Royal Court piece – call upon hard-bitten authority.

Delroy also gets Michael’s sister Carly, but the Fletchers tacitly disapprove. Lisa ‘the ever so friendly but so patronizing it hurts liberal-leftie with her uni mates’ elder sister barely breathes in this story; but Mum Susan in all her prejudice leaps out of Spall, as Michael bodges a family into life. It’s Michael though, grieving, confused at a climactic moment when unasked (as ever) he gives an impromptu funeral address at the chapel. ‘Delroy, I love you, like a brother, but you may sound like us, act like us, but you will never be one of us’ Michael says ‘… it’s my dad talking.’ Really? We recall Alan repeats to Denise ‘There’s a time and place’, when it comes to unleashing racism, a chilling admission those bananas are where time and place is.

Michael’s not racist but. His father’s not but. Though there’s a chilling moment with Michael recalling when Denise is threatened with deportation during the Windrush scandal. He declares he’d be out supporting her, but sees no conflict elsewhere.

Lucy Cullingwood’s movement direction is everywhere in evidence in this tour-de-force of grieving on adrenalin. Spall’s mouth moves even faster, ad-libbing to cosy outrage, audience just inches from him. He does out bananas, biscuits, a drink. So much burns up on that cruciform stage, mostly minimal props, designed by Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ.

Michael raids his memories: they’re filed. There’s a neat set of display cabinets lighting up their wares, not championship cups for which they’re designed and will never house. There’s a head of Nefertiti (to denote Denise), a fluffy bulldog for biting sister Carly, all sorts of life from LPs to Jamaican parties and pints of beer. Jackie Shemish’s lighting hyperactively follows or directs Spall’s movements: it’s mesmeric, clean and snuffs down to a sense of the liminal. Out of thin coronas Spall steps back into myth. And just sometimes they blind us like football floodlights. And there’s a magnificent set reveal, featuring a surprise in that funeral chapel. All to an overwhelming sound design by Pete Malkin and Benjamin Grant.

Most though, Michael’s flailing, failing identity is assailed: not by brutal reveals but the quiet introduction of Riz, an Asian friend of Alan’s at the back of the chapel, who after Michael’s ant takes him to a room where Alan worked everything out. It’s a revelation of books, one of which earns a huge laugh. As is more disturbingly, a new laptop. Finally, there’s a recording from Alan himself. Spall’s hunkered crumple is astonishingly visceral, as if like D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Piano’ his manhood is thrown down and he weeps like a child for the past. A past fast slipping away. It propels Michael into a redemptive act.

If the Russian box effect Riz miraculously sets in motion seems fantastical, Spall’s energy torches through it so there’s no doubt at all. Elsewhere – in his disastrous impromptu – there’s a referencing that seems too politicized for Michael. And how did we get to Steve Bannon? These quibbles don’t disturb the scorching arc of grief and self-realisation.

Because State-of-the-Nation as this work is, nailing itself even in the title (much as Mike Bartlett’s revived Albion does) it never loses its charge, its own rapturous arrival. This is what will give this work agency and power, when some of its local urgencies are smoke up a chimney. And Spall gives the performance of his career so far.