THEATRE REVIEW: Death of England starring Rafe Spall at the National Theatre

WORTH A LOOK?: *****

WHERE? Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre RUNTIME: 100 minutes (no interval)

WHEN? 1/2, press night 6/2 runs to 7/3/20

‘I fell off the stage for the first time – this is really difficult,’ reflects Spall during his standing ovation at the climax of this 2nd preview of an eventful and demanding 100-minute monologue.

  • Read on for reasons including the last time we saw an actor fall from the stage into an audience member’s lap

He breaks from acknowledging the applause to check once more that the audience member he fell on is OK (she is) and we reflect that the last time we saw something similar was when Monica Dolan won our Best Theatre Actress monsta at the Donmar.

Get in early to the theatre auditorium as barstools in the front row are unreserved and we receive an email before the show suggesting we check our coats and bags in the cloakroom ahead of tonight’s one-man show.

This was good advice because the stage is shaped like a cross and not only does Spall cover every inch but he comes out into the pit audience too, picking out people to speak to and even offering biscuits at one point.

We are sitting directly opposite the woman whose lap Spall falls into and it happens at a moment at the beginning of the play when the lights go out and Spall sprints across a corner from one section of the stage to another.

We are within touching distance of him at one point when he pulls pint glasses from a shelf close to where our knees are to illustrate a story about taking his father with him to the pub to watch England’s World Cup semi final against Croatia in 2018.

Spall plays Michael, who is separated from his wife, works on his father’s flower stall, is an Orient fan and says: ‘I’d rather have 10 pints than stand for anything.’

Authors Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, who becomes the first black British artist to have performed, written and directed a full-scale production at the National, introduce a black best friend for Michael and are not afraid to expose the casual racism within Michael’s family.

Ultimately it’s a study of Michael’s crisis caused by the death of his father but also his meditation on his heartbreak about the country that shaped his father and his legacy.

Screen Shot 2020-02-02 at 13.14.42

It’s also a plea to not blame immigrants for the country’s problems but to use education to seize power through demonstration.

We saw Spall in Nick Payne’s devastating Constellations in the West End in 2012 and this is a very different performance. It’s brave, tremendously physical and works well with the heart-on-the-sleeve nature of the material.

Originally commissioned as a micro-play by the Royal Court and Guardian News and Media, it’s unafraid to get under the skin of both racism and Brexit while even-handed enough to criticise liberals for allowing inequalities to be perpetuated.

It’s only February but already this feels like the stand-out performance in the best new play of 2020.

  • Picture via Facebook courtesy National Theatre. Tickets
  • Have you seen this show? Let us know what you thought in the comments below
  • Enjoyed this review? Follow its author on Twitter @NeilDurham, email neildurham3@gmail.com and check us out on Instagram and Facebook

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