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It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Reviews for the recent live production at the National Theatre, Moira Buffini’s Manor, have been almost universally condemnatory. And yet, on the same day, the NT also put out a filmed play which, in terms of reviews, could hardly be bettered. This is Death Of England: Face To Face which premiered on the Sky Arts channel following the success earlier this year of earlier stage/film combo Romeo And Juliet.,
The Death Of England sequence by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams has had an interesting history. Starting life as a ten-minute microplay film courtesy of the Royal Court, this was subsequently developed into a full monologue which received a blistering performance from Rafe Spall as Michael, a disaffected white male who berates everyone in a funeral eulogy that ends in a full-on fight.
This was followed by Death Of England: Delroy which developed the story through the character of Michael’s best friend as he faces arrest while trying to get to his partner’s (and Michael’s sister’s) bedside for the birth of their child. Due to be played by Giles Terera, his hospitalisation handed the role to understudy Michael Balogun who gave another dazzling display. However, this was for one night only as the second lockdown ensured that the production opened and closed on the same night; it was subsequently streamed to further acclaim. In this third (and final?) part, and as the title makes clear, the two men meet up in a piece that once again lands hard, pulls no punches and draws together previously introduced threads.
Delroy hasn’t seen his new daughter and can’t leave his flat because of lockdown and the fact that he is sporting an electronic tag; in order to build bridges Michael brings her round. The crying baby angers the man in the flat upstairs and the pair get into a confrontation which results in recriminations in the form of a gang invading the premises. Battle lines are drawn, and the duo have to confront not only this but themselves and what they stand for. This relatively simple set up is a peg to hang the real concerns of the piece upon. These include England’s increasing isolation from the rest of the world (the pandemic and Brexit), race relations, class privilege, personal identity and toxic masculinity. Although this has the potential to be little more than a list ticking exercise the writing is so sharp and focused that it never feels like that at all, and this is enhanced by crisp editing and two towering performances.