Facing Up

Clint Dyer and Roy Williams, Death of England: Face to Face (directed by Clint Dyer, National Theatre film, 2021)

One of the unexpected delights of lockdown culture was a screening of Death of England: Delroy, in which Delroy (Michael Balogun) recounts his arrest on the way to see the birth of his daughter and his subsequent electronic tagging. It was funny and gripping and anger-inducing and intelligent, and based on a play closed after press night. It was also a sequel to Death of England, in which Delroy’s friend Michael (Rafe Spall) discusses his relationship with his father, Alan, itself based upon a ten minute short.

After two monologues, we get a duologue: Michael and Delroy in the aftermath of … something. Michael is now played by Neil Maskell and Delroy by Giles Terara, who’d pulled out of the original Delroy due to surgery, appeared in the London staging of Hamilton and I’d seen him in RosmerholmDelroy is confined to his London flat during lockdown, unable to see his daughter in the flesh. Michael, brother of Carly who is mother to Delroy’s child, has the bright idea of taking the baby around to see Delroy. There’s a close friendship and uneasiness between the two: Delroy’s reaction to Alan’s racism, Michael’s feelings over Delroy’s relationship with Carly, all their possible futures. When the baby does what babies do, Michael has to go out to get nappies from the corner shop they’d shoplifted from decades earlier and the upstairs neighbour starts hammering on their ceiling.

It really shouldn’t work — as a single set production, it should feel more stagebound than it does and I think we’re more forgiving of breaking the fourth wall in person than on screen. The whole is distinctly told in a non-linear manner and we get cutaways to Alan (Phil Daniels), Carly (Amy Newton), Michael and Carly’s mother Maggie (Maggie Saunders), the shop, the staircase, and so on. We see the fight that has left the flat in the state is has become. Not only do the main characters talk to us, we get additional versions of Michael and Delroy as onlookers and commentators.

The conversation is thought-provoking about relationships with fathers, toxic masculinity, the impact of childhood experiences, mixed heritage relationships and possibilities for solidarity. Dyer and Williams challenge us by demonstrating that people are more complicated than our stereotypes might presuppose, that should never judge on surfaces. (We shouldn’t need to be told think, but in the era of #blacklivesmatter, #metoo and BREXIT it’s something we need to cling onto.)

I wonder if the trilogy is it? There’s a utopian future that is offered for us here. At the same time, the voice we never hear directly is Carly’s — too easily defined as struggling new mother in a love-hate relationship with father, brother and lover. I’d like to hear her story.

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