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Theatre Death of England, National Theatre London

Rafe Spall brilliantly conveys the conflicted mindset of a white working-class ‘loser’

IN THIS solo tour-de-force from actor Rafe Spall, Michael is an estuary lad on a rolling boil of nervous energy.

With clipped strut and barely comprehensible speech he makes his entrance on to a set which, akin to a cockpit, resembles the cross of St George. Red against white, it evokes a wound as well as a symbol of national pride.

You wouldn’t want to meet Michael if he was pissed or if Leyton Orient were losing — he’s volatile enough sober. But Michael is in crisis and the layers of his persona and raw intelligence are stripped back as he recalls his father’s death while watching England’s last World Cup effort.

Hamlet-like, he evokes him in a rasping version of his own Cockney accent. This could be seen as Dickensian caricature, not characterisation of the old estuary working class, but there are depths as Michael negotiates the Rottweiler-like personalities of his mother and sister.

Without it being stated once, we know that they are the victims of deprivation and, in order to not feel more excluded than they are, fall back on being English — and white.

A stunning set change is revealed as Michael speaks at his father’s funeral, the coffin covered by a Union Flag. He verbally attacks his sister in the congregation but it feels like he’s attacking the audience. Masterly theatre.

Yet there’s a touching moment, as he recalls meeting the owner of an Indian restaurant and discovers his father’s secret book-lined room, with a heartbreaking posthumous tape recording for his son.

It’s what’s on his computer that’s troubling. Leave-voting dad was delighted to get “his country back,” not realising that within the class structure it never was his country. Michael voted Remain but couldn’t tell his father.

There is beautiful, perceptive writing from Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, who also directs. Both are black British, and will have encountered many Michaels and although racism is a central theme, they've written a fully fledged character who’s on an emotional journey.

For Michael is the fledgling of his racist father and the best friend of Delroy, the son of West Indian immigrants and Spalls’s accent changes with alchemic ease as he recalls conversations with, and mannerisms of, his other “family.”

There is terrific wit and humour in this play, as well as visual brilliance, as objects set in small boxes are brought out to to represent the people Michael talks about.

Is Michael to be feared or pitied? I thought the audience were doing both. Yet the skill of the writing, direction and acting suggest neither.

He is just how he is, a vulnerable and suffering human being, who is compromised by his background. The fear and pity is contained within himself.

Runs until March 8, box office:



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