Bloated sentimentality: Death of England at the National Theatre
Death of England
Gallery R34, £26
21 February 2020
I wonder if I would have thought more of Death of England in its original ‘micro-play’ format for the Royal Court. In its current shape at the National it is a very well produced, slickly designed piece of sentimentality. As such it’s a squandering of the energy and dare-I-say scenery munching lavished on it by the one man star Rafe Spall.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not unenjoyable, or not particularly unenjoyable, anyway. There are some fun jokes near the beginning. There’s affable audience interaction. The production is snazzy. And Spall, nearly hoarse, is tireless in his devotion to the cause.
But the play haemorrhages tension from early on, probably because note there’s not really enough material to cover an hour and forty minutes. Dramatic non-sequiturs abound. The lengthy funeral speech is caught between extracted absurdity and a striving for realism. The climax, constructed around an undisturbed search history, is unconvincing, and the consequent resolution unearned.
There is a final nail in the coffin. Writer Roy Williams and I guess his mentor Clint Dyer, who also directs, seem unable to resist tying everything up with a nice, sweet bow. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all nice to each other? they earnestly say at the play’s end. But I already know that it would be nice if everyone were nice. I need a bit more to get me going than that.
I suspect what started out as a striking snapshot of an angle of English experience has been bloated out, David-Tennant-era-Doctor-Who-style, into having to support tepidly huge questions that it was never meant to bear. It’s toothless and a bit boring. But maybe Spall deserves his standing ovation nonetheless, if nothing more than for the sacrifice of his voice.