Death of England: Face to Face, review: raw lockdown drama shines light on the politics of identity

Giles Terera and Neil Maskell in Death of England: Face to Face - Sky
Giles Terera and Neil Maskell in Death of England: Face to Face - Sky

What’s in a face? Quite a lot when you are convinced that your mixed-race daughter has similar features to her racist Engerland-braying grandad. “Alan Fletcher, with his twisted lip, on the face of my beautiful child,” says Giles Terera’s Delroy in Death of England: Face to Face, a new National Theatre collaboration with Sky Arts. In his mind’s eye he sees not his newborn but Fletcher’s spittle-flecked mouth snarling at the girl’s mother: “Don’t even think about having a brown kid.”

Face to Face is the latest instalment in Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s miniaturist state of the nation story cycle Death of England about two working-class friends, Delroy and Michael, which began life at the National last January with a monologue explosively delivered by Rafe Spall as Michael, and continued in November with the eponymous Delroy, performed with equal sinew-straining adrenaline by Michael Balogun.

Following in the footsteps of the National’s film theatre version of Romeo and Juliet this April, director Dyer has turned the next, possibly concluding chapter into an 80-minute film starring Terera and Neil Maskell. It doesn't require you to have seen the preceding monologues, but by way of quick scene setting, Michael, who is white, and Delroy, who is black and the semi-estranged boyfriend of Michael’s sister Carly, are both reckoning in different ways with the poisonous legacy of Michael’s late, thuggishly xenophobic dad.

The first monologue was framed by the tensions of Brexit (Michael voted against; both his beloved dad and Delroy voted for); now, with Black Lives Matter and Covid thrown into the mix, their live wire friendship serves as a sort of living index for the emotional impact of recent history on the lives of young British men.

Face to Face is set over one afternoon during the pandemic in Delroy’s east London flat. New fatherhood, the pressures of lockdown, the reverberations of the George Floyd protests plus a racist altercation earlier that day involving both men all feed into the dramatic mix as a visibly strained Delroy and Michael bat back and forth ideas about inheritance, identity, culpability and belonging, with each turning to the audience to corroborate their respective points of view.

Michael Balogun in the original National Theatre performance - National Theatre
Michael Balogun in the original National Theatre performance - National Theatre

It’s tightly shot, using a cinematic wide lens on moodily lit interiors and splicing rapid rewinds and intimate closeups with more obviously theatrical storytelling techniques (each actor voices multiple characters). And as before, the dialogue combines an easy mix of blokey patter and heightened lyricism – Maskell’s winningly tattered, philosopher poet Michael in particular has an ear for an indelible simile.

Male friendship is not a fashionable subject on stage or screen these days; Death of England triumphantly reclaims the subject by parsing seismic social conflicts through a highly particularised masculine intimacy – and beautifully articulated here with fully lived in performances from Maskell and Terera.

It’s less successful at penetrating the causal link between male rage and racism: flashback images of Michael’s father half demented with racist invective do little to increase our understanding, while the racist mob who pile into Delroy’s flat are cartoon villain softies who've probably tattooed I Love My Nan under their Britain First lions, so quickly do they mellow when Delroy shows them his daughter asleep in the pram.

You also feel for the poor baby, onto whose tiny frame Michael and Delroy symbolically load all their dreams of a future better England. But identity politics is too often characterised as the stuff of intractable tension. Dyer and Williams upturn that convention too, combining old fashioned kitchen sink realism with a thrillingly refreshed vernacular to point a tentatively hopeful way forwards.