Death of England

Clint Dyer and Roy Williams
National Theatre
Dorfman Theatre (National Theatre)

Rafe Spall Credit: Helen Murray
Rafe Spall Credit: Helen Murray
Rafe Spall Credit: Helen Murray

Depending upon how you wish to look at it, Death of England is an up-to-date state-of-the-nation play, a touchingly affectionate portrait of an English bigot or a tremendous solo star vehicle for Rafe Spall.

For 100 minutes, the actor rushes up, down and across a stage that comprises two walkways which, with the correct lighting, resemble that ultimate symbol of Englishness, the cross of St George. The performer’s energy levels never let up and there must be a concern for his voice, since he is required to shout many of his characters’ lines almost from start to finish.

As well as designing the stage, Ultz has also introduced a novel idea of a series of glass-fronted boxes around the edges of the dress circle, each of which contains a prop that has significance at some point during the evening. The visual impact is then enhanced by Spall’s constant engagement with members of the audience and a soundscape designed by Pete Malkin and Benjamin Grant.

It will take viewers a little time to acclimatise themselves to a series of characters from the family of the late Alan Fletcher, in a story largely narrated by his son Michael. Soon enough though, Rafe Spall’s accents and characterisation ensure that all of us know exactly who is who and what is going on.

The deceased was an archetypal Cockney who ran a flower stall somewhere in the East End. His views are controversial and expressed in a crude but realistic manner utilising language that may not please older denizens of the National.

In simple terms, Alan Fletcher is a stereotype who embraces racist ideologies, loves far right politicians and might well have tattoos glorifying not only family members but, much more significantly, the England football team and his beloved Leyton Orient. He is also a passionate nationalist who was inevitably delighted when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. His death could not be more ironic, since the not-so-old man’s heart symbolically gives out while he is screaming at a pub television as England are embarrassing themselves at the 2018 World Cup.

Thereafter, Michael paints a portrait of a loudmouth bigot whose family are equally hard-nosed and enjoy nothing more than a rant and a ruck. When all of this is in danger of becoming just a little too predictable, the playwrights Clint Dyer, who also directs, and Roy Williams introduce a hidden room with hidden depths that make us do a double take and reconsider the life and opinions of the deceased florist.

Death of England is a really fine piece of writing that portrays a far more complex character than had seemed likely in the early scenes. At the same time, it should make all of us think again about our own opinions, as well as the parlous state of a nation on the brink of going it alone.

However, this enthralling production is most likely to be remembered for an exhausting but unforgettable performance from Rafe Spall, which richly deserves to win a whole host of awards.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

Are you sure?