FringeReview UK 2023
Hayley Squires blazes Carly as a revelation wielding the writers’ language like a Swiss army-knife with secret gouges, and renders her still loveable. Yet here after all’s said, talked through, it’s when Denise’s “It’s closing time Carly. It’s over. Come on babe, let’s do this” and takes her hand you’re not sure whether to cry or cheer.
Director Clint Dyer, Co-Set and Costume Designer Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey, Co-Set and Costume Designer ULTZ Lighting Designer Jackie Shemesh, Co-Sound Designer Benjamin Grant, Co-Sound Designer Pete Malkin, Dialect Coach Hazel Holder, Voice Coach Cathleen McCarron, Associate Director Mumba Dodwell
Till November 11th
“But ain’t it nice to see them all up there… the king’s family” asserts Michael, reported by his mother-in-law to his sister. With the most delicious upstaging of Zadok the Priest since The Madness of George III – and for a real coronation at that – two women share a rare moment of national unity. Is that the phrase? Really? Cliff Dyer’s (who also directs) and Roy Williams’ Death of England: Closing Time at the NT Dorfman theatre is the closing play in a tetralogy that’s redefined ‘national’ let alone ‘unity’.
It’s worth remembering how prescient the first Death of England was, ending its run on March 7 2020, shortly before lockdown and the murder of George Floyd, and football events giving rise to those portrayed in Dear England, in fact. Let alone the slew of government-led obscenities recently, referenced here.
But even before that Roy Williams’ great 2002 Sing Yer Hearts Out for the Lads (revived at Chichester last year) also mapped a racist-inspired tragedy played around the pub’s broadcast of a football-match. That’s one of several strands revisited here, albeit more muted.
We pick up the family of Michael Fletcher, son of dead flower-seller Alan, and best mate Delroy Tomlin, who both appeared in solo plays. In the latter, Delroy was arrested on his way to visit his partner Carly (Michael’s sister) as she gave birth to their daughter, Meghan. They’re together in the NT film Face to Face (2021), where Michael’s inherited racism was confronted.
Meghan with a difference: “Unlike the Royal family, it’s working” Carly (Hayley Squires) asserts of her relationship. Delroy’s mother Denise (Sharon Duncan-Brewster replacing an indisposed Jo Martin) doesn’t have to work the laughter: and quotes Delroy’s “working royals” a “wholesome clean living white military colonialist family” with “pantomime clothes and spending 100 million pounds of taxpayers’ money”. Invoking Delroy, Michael and others was always a feature of these plays, though here it’s reached a frantic apogee.
Whilst waiting for the two men, Denise and Carly strike sparks off each together or in monologues that blister the walls. Jackie Shemesh’s lighting syncopates with them, even switching in half-seconds and back.
As a consequence of that meeting in Face to Face, their families have united Michael’s flower shop and Denise’s patty shop; and it’s crashed with Denise’s life-savings. For a reason. That reason’s the explosion that starts Act Two. Carly and Denise simmer across a room. There’s a reckoning in it. and again Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey’s set is St George-cruciform, the audience continually referred to and up-close. So Carly asks an audience-member to hold a broom, or Denise someone else to turn off a mobile, as various props are reached up for, also as before.
Carly frequently references Delroy lovingly. On her instant teen desire for him: “I wanted to climb him like a tree” the objectifying is only tacitly there, unlike later. But if “it’s working” why is Carly sleeping on the sofa? The men are both at football – which Carly initially follows on TV – instead of helping clear the shop and hand over keys. The edginess of her exchanges with Denise tells: glances, even order of invoking other conversations.
Denise references everything from Black Lives Matter through wokeness but in these parts exposition feels natural as culture-wars are referenced. Where it doesn’t is where the top-heavy first act allows too much backstory exposition that occasionally loses focus, despite all the energy – unlike the lean compelling line of previous works.
It’s as if compensating for overt political material that in fact sits (dare one say) comfortably in the play, especially in Denise’s precise wielding of vocabulary – she taunts Carly with her A level Astrophysics. Towards the end of Act One though it settles. When Denise says in a key speech: “I felt seen by her… I know she loved up the royals… but that was her downfall… She knew too much but still wasn’t us…” she introduces us exactly to why.
To Benjamin Grant’s and Pete Malkin’s sound Squires enacts a jaw-droppingly executed set-scene. In a live blog in a taxi that goes viral a drunken Carly introduces to her show-stopping, occasionally inaudible, boppy “five rules of keeping a Black man” (more like six in fact) that channels all she knows now, judged by the deep, drunken reach of what she was brought up with.
So it’s a deep irony Carly invokes Alan: “As you probably know by now, my dad was a man of his generation” without a hint of irony. Using the most sexist terms, every B F and C literally sprinkled it changes the whole energy of the show. The latter half, picking up pieces from there, is 50 minutes of the most compelling theatre in the series.
Duncan-Brewster has rapidly grown Denise to a complex, conflicted and hyper-aware commentator, wisest of all the protagonists across this ground-breaking series. Squires blazes Carly as a revelation wielding the writers’ language like a Swiss army-knife with secret gouges, and renders her still loveable. Yet here after all’s said, talked through, it’s when Denise’s “It’s closing time Carly. It’s over. Come on babe, let’s do this” and takes her hand you’re not sure whether to cry, cheer or both.