Good grief, Black Mirror‘s Rafe Spall is astonishing in the loud and chaotic Death of England, Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s vivid tale of Cockney geezer Michael Fletcher processing the loss of his father, a football-loving nationalist with strongly held views on Englishness.
On and off ULTZ and Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey’s English flag set, Spall moves with a formidable restlessness, an incredible performance after one false start and a fall from the stage during the show. Restoring momentum, he delivers a 100-minute monologue as an unstoppable train of thought, the lighting (designed by Jackie Shemesh) adding an extra level of intensity whilst struggling at times to keep up with Rafe’s rushing movements. It’s almost as if he still hasn’t had time to fully process the loss until now, and he is angry.
In between a collection of anecdotes underpinning Michael’s emotional development, Spall shows a man frustrated with his ties to his father and the blame associated with the loss. Drunken and exhausted, he launches a fiery takedown of his father’s legacy. Across the whole production, Spall morphs into several characters with simple body postures, accents and facial expressions, aided by Williams and Dyer’s descriptive dialogue, but in this scene, there’s a difference. “These are Dad’s words, not mine,” he proclaims, beginning the start of a deep reflection and critique of what his father stood for, and what legacy – if any – he will continue in the future.
What exactly his father did stand for is all too painfully apparent, blaming England’s failures ‘on anyone but ourselves’ (in particular, foreigners), yet Michael’s final response to it is drawn out – something which feels out of place in a play with such a fast tempo. Racism in football and racial profiling are sadly contemporary, but nonetheless strikingly presented and challenged by the protagonist. As a character, we don’t know much that’s new or revelatory about Michael’s dad, and as such the promised exploration of race and identity doesn’t feel as in-depth as it perhaps could have been.
Then again, Death of England is partly about an individual’s journey through grief, Michael’s reflection often prompted by his progression through its different stages (though not all five). It’s a journey strongly steered by Rafe, morphing into other characters seamlessly with impressive minimalism using no more than an accent, facial expression or gesture to symbolise them. The same goes for the props in the production, the representation of close friends and family members being in the form of busts and trophies being a particularly clever touch. If not that, then they aid what is already an engaging performance from Spall, such as a packet of biscuit used as a bargaining chip to maintain the audience’s attention amongst the dizziness of it all.
After all, away from the fleeting narrative, it’s easy to strike a connection with Michael and his feelings of anger and depression. Death of England is framed as a revelatory story, but I do wonder if such a discovery, explored through the five stages of grief, would prompt a greater examination of the play’s key themes.
I say this as when the lights went down at the end, I struggled to accept that it was over – a high-energy performance cut short by a sombre but all too sudden conclusion. Although single-handed in its delivery, Death of England is split in its narrative. In order for Michael to gain closure, he must first fully understand who his father was, and what he represented. Yet despite the provocative title and a tireless performance by Spall, discussions on identity, nationalism and what Englishness is run out of steam by the end of the play. We certainly see Michael move on, and there’s some satisfaction to be had in a well-rounded story powerfully performed, but it feels like the audience isn’t offered the same sense of completion.
This review is of a preview performance. Death of England is now playing at the Dorfman Theatre until 7 March.
Production Images: Helen Murray.