BWW Review: DEATH OF ENGLAND, National Theatre
Michael has something of This Is England's Combo about his fighty attitude to life. Rafe Spall, who plays him, has something of Steven Berkoff's bravura in-yer-facedness about his performance. And writers, Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, have something of Johnny Speight's willingness to expose a racist while giving him a dangerously seductive charisma.
It's a heady brew played out over 100 breathless minutes on a stage that mirrors the Cross of St George and represents England's tombstone - or, perhaps, England's crossroads.
Michael's father runs a flower stall and worships Leyton Orient. He's a racist who has, for years, known that "Time and place son, time and place son" is the best way to navigate a society that scorns such views - in public at least. Brexit emboldens him and the time and place suddenly appears to be right here, right now.
Michael and his father (mother too, but that's less important to him) don't communicate, though they do talk and they do shout. Neither has the tools to articulate the inchoate anger that bubbles so close to the surface, but must be suppressed, so they take it out on each other, knocking, knocking, knocking, but never finding a way to express the love they obviously share.
Things are especially tricky for Michael, because his pride in his white English working-class identity is continually undermined by the evidence of his eyes - his best friend is black, his football team is half-black, and he didn't even vote Leave FFS. Hemmed in, there's nowhere for all this testosterone-fuelled aggression to go - his fights with Delroy don't count, especially as his frenemy is holding back all the time and they both know it.
Until his father's funeral - and then a few secrets emerge that hardly make things any better.
You can hear people like Michael's father on talk radio all day every day, filtered a little, because the raw in tooth-and-claw stuff is online, in the pubs and on the terraces, though whispered more than chanted these days. You can see men like Michael too in photos of an EDL march or wearing "I'm Tommy Robinson" T-shirts or bare-chested in bars near England's away matches. Maybe not quite true believers in the racist creed, but happier with this identity than any others in a complicated world that keeps challenging their comfortable "truths" rather than confirming them.
This is what The National Theatre should be doing in 2020 and it's fortunate to have Rafe Spall to carry the show, as he's compelling throughout, regularly breaking the fourth wall, never dropping the energy - it's just him and us, after all.
The play largely works as a drama (not all such plays do, the polemic often overpowering the narrative), though it's ten minutes too long, spending a little more time than is necessary establishing the father-son relationship. Its late reveal isn't fully worked through beyond underlining that Michael isn't the only one who has to navigate the complexities of a multicultural England that keeps demolishing crude racist beliefs with humane reality.
Photo Helen Murray