Death of England: Delroy

Clint Dyer and Roy Williams
National Theatre
Olivier Theatre / NT Theatre at Home

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Michael Balogun Credit: Normski
Michael Balogun Credit: Normski
Michael Balogun Credit: Normski

At a time that seems like a lifetime ago but was actually the beginning of this year, National Theatre audiences were wowed by an unforgettable performance from Rafe Spall as Michael Fletcher, an archetypal East London bigot with hidden depths.

When Rufus Norris was trying to find a play to relaunch the theatre after a long, enforced period of closure, a projected companion piece must have been an obvious choice. Given all of the logistical problems in playing to a reconfigured Olivier space with a much-reduced audience, an 85-minute-long solo performance had much to commend it. The original run was cut short immediately after opening night, but fortuitously it has been recorded to facilitate this 24-hour free release.

Death of England: Delroy is not so much a sequel as a more radical, alternative view from a man who is almost equally bigoted but takes a very different perspective. Michael Balogun is Delroy, Michael’s best friend from childhood to the present day—well, almost. Not only that, but his partner Carly is Michael’s sister, cementing the very close relationship.

When the pandemic strikes, Delroy has a good solid job as a bailiff and is happily awaiting the birth of what turns out to be a lovable daughter. However, true to his calling, rather than his growing family, our outspoken memoirist believes in keeping his phone off during working hours, meaning that he misses the vital messages encouraging a rush to hospital for a very premature birth.

When the putative father finally realises the urgency, all sense very reasonably disappears as he finds himself doing a suspicious U-turn at the wrong station and attracting the attention of some gratuitously racist police officers.

This is where the play becomes a little more contrived than is ideal since, rather than pleading his case reasonably but desperately, Delroy becomes implausibly angry, swearing and showing undue aggression. Hence, rather than overcoming any racial prejudice that might have been harboured by police in the era of Black Lives Matter, he manages to entrench such views and ends up in a police cell rather than at his girlfriend’s bedside. When he eventually reaches the hospital, the anger spills over causing deep offence to everybody that he loves.

The Guinness-fuelled self-justifications that follow are tempered by the knowledge that our anti-hero is wearing a police tag and is thus doubly locked down. Trapped at home, as well as wallowing in his own misery, Delroy somewhat incongruously manages to embrace a host of zeitgeists that are troubling so many today regarding racism, Britain’s relationship with Europe and the inability to commune with our loved ones at will.

A powerful performance under the direction of co-writer Clint Dyer is played out on a stage space shaped like a St George’s Cross, supplemented by a red carpet. As with the first play, the story benefits significantly from a set of meaningful iconography, courtesy of co-designers Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and Ultz.

One cannot help but be impressed by a full-on performance from Michael Balogun, who stepped into the role late but embraces it to terrifying perfection. What might have been little more than a violent rant is redeemed in the later stages as Delroy finally stops blaming the world and takes some good advice meted out by his strict but loving Jamaican mother.

Yet again, we should all be grateful to the National Theatre for sharing one of its crown jewels at no cost but in the hope that delighted viewers might be willing to make meaningful donations to help keep theatre alive generally and this particular one afloat until it can open its doors to full houses once again. Roll on the great day.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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