Back in the first lockdown it became a regular ritual on Thursday evenings to settle down for the National Theatre At Home stream which put up a new production from the NT’s extensive archive every week. I managed to see and review them all. Now the National Theatre has let us have one more recorded treat with Death Of England: Delroy which opened live on 4 November and closed the same night as Lockdown 2 came into force the following day. And it’s a reminder of just how spoiled we all were for 16 weeks back in the spring/summer.
Death Of England: Delroy is by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams and is a response to their own earlier play, simply called Death Of England which played at the National Theatre before Covid hoved into our lives. Both plays are extended monologues spoken from the point of view of one of two friends – one white, one black.
While it’s perhaps a pity that both plays couldn’t be shown so that they contextualised each other, at least the earlier play (starring Rafe Spall) had a decent run. Not so the latter, hence the decision to release it online. The main narrative concerns Delroy’s dash to be by the side of Carly – the sister of Michael, the man in the first play – as she gives birth to their daughter only to be stopped by the police en route because they have mistaken him for someone else (and that’s the generous interpretation).
Delroy makes the mistake of swearing one too many times, is thrown in a cell and winds up in court. The resonances from the George Floyd tragedy begin to mount up although the play was written before that occurred. Brexit is also high on the agenda and we find that Michael voted for it though not for the reasons which might generally be anticipated. Beyond the betrayals perpetrated by the country at large, Delroy is also the victim of personal disloyalty from Michael and Carly; it is a toss up which hurts and affects him more.
The central role of Delroy was due to be taken by Giles Terera but emergency surgery ruled him out of performing and his place was taken by understudy Michael Balogun. He proves to be a real find and firecrackers his way through a performance that burns with anger and emotion and is full of physical tension as he races around the set. Explosive moments are matched by some quietly intense passages and he’s good at the humour too particularly when he is “doing” some of the other characters who appear in the narrative such as Delroy’s tooth sucking mum.
Director Dyer keeps the 90-minute piece moving at a terrific pace using the character’s anger to fuel the momentum. The performance takes place in the cavernous Olivier auditorium remodelled as an in the round theatre (can we leave it like that, please?). At the centre of this stands a stage designed as a large wooden cross; when Balogun unrolls two red carpets it suddenly becomes the cross of St George. Through this and from the flies there appear several visual surprises from designers ULTZ and Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and the whole is punctuated by some urgently staccato lighting effects by Jackie Shemesh. The lights gradually go on section by section in the audience during Delroy’s trial scene implicating us/them in the process of condemning a man who was just going about his business.
Like Carly within the play, Death of England: Delroy has experienced acute labour pangs and a protracted birth process. It has culminated in play with complete contemporary relevance and a star making turn from Balogun which echoes that from Joseph Potter in the recently livestreamed The Poltergeist at Southwark Playhouse. The live runs of both plays were cruelly cut short and feature intense anger at their beating hearts. Both actors exude an intensity which burns like fire in these difficult times; someone. please write them a two-hander, double quick!