Tag Archives: Rafe Spall

“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


Photo by Helen Murray

“Constellations” at the Royal Court Theatre

Constellations, a new play by Nick Payne at the Royal Court, applies the theory that there are multiple universes onto one couple. “Everything you’ve ever and never done” is played out in different ‘multiverses’ creating many stories. In a series of short scenes the relationship on stage is presented in parallel narratives – from friendship to marriage, in sickness and in health, rejection to reconciliation. These multiple realities make Constellations a truly wonderful play.

By turn hilarious, with sharp comic observations, then dealing with tragic events, there’s an ironic eye to this multiverse idea that makes Constellations a playful affair. The decisions any playwright faces when making a drama mirror those we face in life: Payne wants to show all these choices with a virtuoso display that runs his actors and audience through the gamut of possibilities.

Repeated dialogue and stops and starts that occur on entering each new universe are handled skilfully by director Michael Longhurst. And the repetition of lines allows Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall to give stellar performances as they modulate their delivery of the same conversations in different contexts. Spall’s comic ability and incontrovertible charm are perfect for the likeable character he plays, while the moments of vulnerability show his sensitivity.

Both actors have to turn on a dime, as they switch from universe to universe, and they excel at this. Sally Hawkins is truly remarkable not only at getting laughs, but at exploring the play’s darker moments. Whenever she despairs it is deeply moving, all the more so since only a second before she was making us giggle. Seldom have I laughed and cried in such close proximity.

Constellations marks a development in Payne’s writing not to be missed. It’s an ambitious, confident piece which retains his warm wit yet has a bleak edge. The work is also beautifully poetic – the revisited phrases are not only a comic device, but wrought to create a hypnotic symphony of feelings.

If this sounds pretentious then think again: Payne works in another universe where experimentation like this isn’t pompous. There’s no intellectual posturing here and, while the ideas are a challenge, this is a practical play extolling experience, embracing our condition and offering consolation not with philosophy but physics.

Until 11 February 2012


Photo by Simon Annand

Written 20 January 2012 for The London Magazine

“If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” at the Bush Theatre

Under the directorship of Josie Rourke, The Bush Theatre continues its tradition of strong new writing with Nick Payne’s play, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.

A young girl, neglected by her well-meaning, busy parents, is befriended by her prodigal uncle. In a carefully crafted arc, her adolescence is charted from being bullied at school, through the first pains of love, to her shocking desperation and finally some kind of hope for the future.

The teenager in question is played with spirit by Ailish O’Connor, who perfectly captures these troubled years, switching from frustration to confusion. Even more impressive is her ability to reflect the wild mood swings anyone who knows teenagers will recognise.

For O’Connor’s character has some serious problems. Overweight and bullied at school, she and her parents fail to connect. Finding solace in her uncle proves a mistake, given the baggage he carries himself, and the inevitable meltdown is powerful. While our own perspectives may make some problems seem trivial – the teenage date or over-protective parent, for example – so empathetic is the writing that we accept the intensity of the characters’ feelings.

Which is to ignore, so far, the strongest aspect of Payne’s writing. Not only is it intelligent and humane, it is very, very funny. There are some great one liners, but more amusing still are those toe-curling scenes, such as when father and daughter eat together in their local curry house and it is hard to work out which one is hating it more.

The rest of the cast also revel in the strong script. Pandora Colin plays a mother trying to do her best for her daughter and at the end of her patience with her husband. Michael Begley plays the latter, so consumed by his studies into environmental disaster that he ignores what is going on on his doorstep. Perhaps Begley’s performance is tainted too much by caricature, which gets plenty of laughs but does less justice to the underlying humour Payne excels in. Rafe Spall is the erstwhile uncle, offensive and tactless, but not unintelligent.

Payne benefits from tight direction by Rourke and an ambitious set from Lucy Osborne but it is the maturity of the writing that is most memorable. Here we have an intelligent and entertaining platform for exploring the serious issues of how we live now.

Until 21 November 2009


Written 26 October 2009 for The London Magazine