Death of England, playing at London’s National Theatre is a powerful, funny, distressing play with a tour de force by Rafe Spall.
Michael is mourning his father, an old school, set in his ways racist, who he adored and loathed in equal measure.
Shocked by his sudden death, Michael is reminiscing and reflecting on events in his life with his father, an East End geezer – owner of a flower stall and massive Leyton Orient fan. He was also a polite xenophobic and a lover of racist jokes but always told out of earshot of anyone who might be offended. His was a racism that didn’t baulk at his son having a black best friend, Delroy, but drew a line at his daughter Carly having a romantic relationship with him.
Michael is torn between trying to be the son he believes his father would want him to be and rejecting all the toxic ideals that he believes his father held. A surprise interaction after his father’s funeral leaves Michael reeling and questioning everything he knew about his father.
Death of England is a one man play and Rafe Spall is absolutely extraordinary as Michael. The play is one hour and 40 minutes and Spall holds the audience’s captive for the entirety. The staging gives him absolutely nowhere to hide or even the chance to take a breath; it is an astonishing piece of acting.
The staging by Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey is utterly superb. The stage itself is a cross – lit red as we enter the theatre to signify the cross of St George from the England flag. The stalls seats are tucked into the 4 corners created by the cross – the audience members seated there are on swivel chairs to enable them to follow the action as Spall thunders up and down the stage. At times he interacts with them, hopping on and off the stage, firing questions, seeking validation.
Above the stage – effectively at the feet of the circle seats – are boxes containing props, which Spall uses to illustrate and feed the narrative. They light up as he reaches for what he needs – an Egyptian queen’s head represents Delroy’s mum, a medusa plate for his own mother, a stuffed bulldog for his sister Carly. It is very simple but incredibly effective and breathtakingly clever.
In many ways the content of the play reminded me of monologue pieces I have seen in much smaller theatres like Trafalgar Studio 2 and the upstairs space of Soho Theatre – it feels extremely intimate and very raw. The difference here is the National Theatre budget allowing this phenomenal staging.
At times the writing does dip a little and embraces a few too many clichés (a throwaway line that nods to the Windrush scandal felt forced and unnecessary) but Spall’s extraordinary performance rides the dips, his delivery is just brilliant.
Death of England is a wonderful play about the bigger questions of the English and Englishness told through the smaller story of an adult dealing with the death of a parent and the question of how well does anyone know or understand the life of their parents. It is brilliantly delivered by Spall who must be a shoo-in for every theatre award available.
Reviewed by Emma Heath
Photo: Helen Murray