Tag Archives: Clint Dyer

“The Death of England: Delroy” at the National Theatre

While its back catalogue of broadcasts from NTLive was a blessing during lockdown, being back on the South Bank for a show in real life is the real deal. For those lucky enough to have caught the brief window of performances, before a second closure, this new play by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams was a very special occasion.

An introduction from creative director Rufus Norris, justifiably proud of his theatre getting back into action, added to the atmosphere. The caution shown around protecting customers is clear: there are allocated tables before being taken to seats and – beware – last orders for pre-show drinks is in the afternoon.

What of the play selected to welcome theatre devotees back? As well as the important subject matter of racism, Death of England: Delroy is topical. After seeing shows years old, it’s good to be reminded of how quickly theatre can respond to current concerns.

A sort of sequel to their show last year, Dyer and Williams develop a character mentioned in their previous monologue, Death of England. Recounting a “very bad day” Delroy has had – quite randomly – this likeable character runs into trouble with the police. Serious consequences include estranging him from partner and new-born child.

The show provides a starring role for Michael Balogun who is superb. It’s amazing to learn he was drafted into the project last minute. A rapid-fire delivery shows remarkable confidence with the script. And his level of energy over 90 minutes is astounding.

Welcome as the show is, it would be wrong to say it’s perfect. The Olivier is an unforgiving space at the best of times and the Covid-reduced seating feels particularly detrimental. All the more credit to Balogun for creating an atmosphere that ranges from convivial to confrontational.

The unusual conditions can’t be avoided. But Dyer’s direction creates problems too. It’s understandable that all aspects of design (the set by Ultz, lighting by Jackie Shemesh and sound by Pete Malkin) want to show off what the National is capable off. Like us, the team is thrilled to be back in the theatre. But does this show need any extras? Loud, dazzling, effects and some pretty naff props (including an explosion of confetti) are not needed with such a strong script.

Because the text itself really is excellent. The bravura language, which Delroy aptly describes as a “riot in my mouth” is provocative and funny. The ease with which ideas are raised is impressive, including arguments both enlightening and far-fetched (a motivation for voting to leave Europe is worth a raised eyebrow). There’s anger alongside a cool recognition of “colour class bullshit” that pervades all aspects of Delroy’s life. Putting the spotlight on privilege couldn’t be more timely; Dyer and Williams are experts at it.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Normski Photography

“Death of England” at the National Theatre

If anywhere should host a state-of-the-nation play it’s surely our nation’s theatre. Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s new work is an intelligent example of the genre. Full of insight and observation, their writing is expert. That said, it’s easy to imagine that the show will be primarily remembered for the extraordinary performance from its sole actor – Rafe Spall.

Williams and Dyer really have done a great job. The death in the title covers that of their character Michael’s father. The complex relationship between the two men, indeed the whole family, provides an intimate drama with plenty of humour. But the writers’ concerns are much wider, injecting the play with an urgent directness.

As well as getting to know a family, Death of England is a brilliantly observed look at a white working-class community and suggests a summation of the state of masculinity as much as race relations in the country. That’s a lot, and at times ‘issues’ feel forced, but Dyer’s direction of his text powers through.

Focusing on Michael’s father’s racism, Brexit and the Far Right raise their ugly heads. But Williams and Dyer want to point out that racism isn’t a fringe problem. That the father’s twisted logic includes a “time and place” for bigotry (criticising those who are too open about their prejudice) proves chilling. Michael knows he should have challenged his dad more and we can see the impact it has had on his friendships and his family. His cry to “search my history” may come in the context of the cache on a laptop but has far wider implications.

This root-and-branch examination of our country’s problems rests on Spall’s shoulder and he really is magnificent in this once-in-a-lifetime role. Addressing the audience throughout, and interacting with them a good deal, for all his faults, his patter and honesty make him appealing and often funny.

Spall’s is an incredibly physical performance, not least since a cross-shaped stage takes up a good portion of the theatre’s pit seating. With the character fuelled by drugs and alcohol, as well as rage, the switches from aggression to grief are frequent and sudden. The speech is nearly always at break-neck speed. Add the frequent shouts and tears (aside from worrying about Spall’s vocal chords) and it’s remarkable you can hear what he is saying so well.

When it comes to depicting other characters, Spall shows further intelligence. These are impersonations that Michael is making, the aim isn’t to bring another figure onto the stage but show Michael’s version of them. Getting to meet the whole family in this peculiar manner is wonderfully layered and brilliantly executed, serving Williams and Dyer’s play to perfection.

Until 8 March 2020

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Helen Murray

"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" at the National Theatre

Part of August Wilson’s decathlon of plays about race relations in America, this 1982 work is set in a 1920s Chicago recording studio. While the titular diva, known as the mother of the blues, fights with her manager and producer over adapting her signature song into a modern jazz style, her backing band’s members reveal personal and political tensions of their own.
It could be heavy stuff. Yet, by setting up plenty of laughs and endearing characters, Wilson’s play is hugely entertaining. Most impressively, by showing how racism infuses – indeed poisons – lives, the politics here are as emotive as they are educational. The segregated society the play is based in takes some getting your head around – the gap between races so fundamental – but showing how the players take it for granted has a humbling effect.
If the play has a failing, it’s that you can’t – and don’t – get enough of Ma Rainey. A flaw compounded by the fact that the excellent Sharon D Clarke takes the role. Written relatively thinly, the motivation behind her often-amusing artistic temperament is portrayed confidently and certainly makes you think. But with a voice this strong, it seems downright foolish not to get more music out of Clarke.
Impeccably directed by Dominic Cooke, Ultz’s design creates a sound booth aloft and a basement room that the band rehearses in. The feeling is sparse, almost wasteful given the size of the Lyttleton stage, but the claustrophobia is fitting enough. In a narrow space a quartet of excellent performers carefully reveal frequently harrowing stories from the boys in the band.

O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati
O-T Fagbenle and Lucian Msamati

Giles Terera and Clint Dyer make a great double act as long-standing friends who play together. O-T Fagbenle has the star part as Levee, a talented, troubled and ambitious youngster, who embodies the power of new music – jazz. A tough call, we have to take Levee seriously while laughing at him quite a bit and Fagbenle manages this balance well, skillfully revealing the character’s tragic background. Lucian Msamati’s philosophising Toledo wants to open the eyes of his illiterate colleagues. Exquisitely delivering the most didactic of lines, he deserves our applause – our affection for him paying off with the play’s startling, tragic, conclusion. The impact and legacy of racism is clear here, making the play still frighteningly apposite.
Until 18 May 2016
www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
Photos by Johan Persson

"Perseverance Drive" at the Bush Theatre

Last night saw the world premiere of Perseverance Drive by Robin Soans at the Bush Theatre. This is the story of the dysfunctional Gillards, starting with the funeral of the mother in Barbados and ending with the death of the father in Leytonstone. The treatment is detailed and the story interesting, but broader themes are often overshadowed by a dysfunctional family drama.
Our theme is religion. The Gillards set up their own church, but the three sons have “back-slid”: one obsessed with the form rather than function of religion, another setting up his own roving ministry, and the third by being homosexual. Interestingly, the latter two contend for position as most disappointing son. There’s a wealth of detail about the church that, perhaps through my own ignorance, I found slightly distracting. The humour is welcome, but grave situations need more emphasis – could smoking a cigarette really be so outrageous? Apparently so.
Some characters are too sketchy to satisfy – Akiya Henry actually does well to get laughs out of the reborn but vicious sister-in-law Joylene, where even a dramatic backstory provides little flesh to the character. In the major role of Josh, Clint Dyer seems handicapped by some clunky lines but pulls through at powerful moments. The best performance comes from the patriarch, a picture of stern power diminished by illness, movingly depicted by Leo Wringer.
There’s a vague whiff of melodrama around Perseverance Drive. Not from Madani Younis’ efficient direction, but rather the explosive arguments that sometimes baffle and resolutions that come close to being sentimental. But the family arguments, including an excruciating scene in church, will have you gripped and Soans’ ambition to write a play about religion, marked by a lot of common sense, is nonetheless admirable.
Until 16 August 2014
www.bushtheatre.co.uk
Photo by Richard Davenport
Written 11 July 2014 for The London Magazine