As the National Theatre hopes that Death of England: Delroy will return for socially-distanced audiences in the spring, it was only on YouTube for only 24 hours. This review thus begins from an odd position, an artefact of the filmed version of this play, itself an artefact of Delroy’s first, cut-short-by-covid run – its opening and closing night, to be specific.
Though reviews are always a record of something passed and unrepeatable, and don’t serve a purely advisory purpose, it’s strange to be responding to an unchanging version of a play I can’t recommend if you see or not because it’s unavailable. And what I saw is different from what you’d see of an in-person performance of Delroy, with your mask on, one of a less than half-full audience, not viewing the production through the angles and editing I did. I eventually got on with writing this review by trying to let go of accounting for all of this and seeing this as just standing on its own, a response for its own sake, like a knee jerking – ideally without the connotations, just the movement.
As a play, Delroy is more conscious of its responding quality than most; Roy Williams (writer) and Clint Dyer (writer and director) began work on it before lockdown, a sequel to their production Death of England, which played in the Dorfman in February. It’s an expansion, taking for its subject Delroy, the friend of Michael referenced in Death of England, a Black Brit who had voted for Brexit, has a job as a bailiff, and a relationship with Michael’s sister, Carly. In Death of England, at his father’s funeral, Michael tells Delroy that he “will never be one of us.”
In Delroy, we see the result of being told this in as many words as well as more insidiously by a racist country for an entire life. Delroy (Michael Balogun) is a man whose own responses are continuously found lacking, and finds Britain seriously lacking too. His mother expects differently from him. No-one approves of his cheerfully depriving others of their property. His best friend betrayed him and now seems to be healing, scot-free (a further betrayal). He lets us in to the story of his child’s birth, a nightmare day involving racist profiling by the police which Carly has no sympathy for. Held in a cell for hours, he describes how all the things holding him together just evaporate. And then he has to go on.
Artistic programming is always a response to what’s happening in the world (often less urgently and more cautiously than we’d like, but still) and the National’s messaging around Delroy was plain about politics this year and Black Lives Matter protests in the summer making this play feel important. Take into account that the Guardian’s announcement for Delroy noted that Dyer and Williams would be the first Black British dramatists to have a full-scale production in the National’s Olivier theatre. Death of England began life as a ‘microplay’ commissioned by the Royal Court and Guardian in 2014, inspired by the sports section of the paper. Delroy has roots too in Dyer’s short film Dim Sum, part of Headlong and The Guardian’s EU-focused ‘Europeans’ series in March.
Delroy has been informed by this, is a response in all these ways, its turnaround likely accelerated; programming on this scale is usually done much further in advance. To be responsive is to be quick on your feet but no less considered for it, which Delroy manages. And Balogun takes his position as the only onstage performer unexpectedly, from understudy position, and responds with a knockout, enthralling, sing-yer-heart-out-for-the-
Jackie Shemesh’s agile lighting design suggests responsiveness most strongly in the first place. With Sadesya Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ’s design, Delroy seems tiny, distanced from everything and everyone. A flick, and Balogun stands on a narrow walkway rather than his usual red paper St George’s Cross. Blown-large symbols of the people in his life (his mother, a Nefertiti amulet) are unveiled and he turns his face up towards them. Even when the lighting shows us easily when he’s talking to us versus to someone else, Delroy’s terrible aloneness feels always emphasised. We only realise how Balogun usually swells to fill the Olivier as his acting finally slips into something more naturalistic, video-calling Carly.
Williams and Dyer well capture Delroy’s charms and contradictions. “Do the work,” Delroy says, “get to know me.” His defensive disdain for what he views as the non-aspiring working class, or for Black activists. How expectations are crushing him, including his own. He’s a hopeless romantic, but racism intrudes into love. Knowing and even sympathising with your enemy doesn’t help. The one person who listens to him in this play is Michael, and that’s not enough. The hurt goes back further than Michael’s dad’s funeral, further than Michael and Delroy.
The only other initially unplanned sequel to a play I can immediately think of is John Osborne’s last play Déjàvu, the coldly-received follow-up forty years later to Look Back in Anger. Worlds apart from this, but similarly a return to the same theme, a toothy worrying at the same wound. You fail the people you love and it’s because of everything that’s outside, which you can’t keep outside, because it’s inside everything, including you. What happens when you’re faced with what you’ve been made? What’s your comeback? Delroy’s barely allowed the luxury of reaction. Osborne’s Jimmy (or J.P.) poisonously stagnates, while Delroy’s kicked in the teeth, again and again.
Can any formalised, artistic response to the endemic, systemised racism in this country be enough? It can’t tie things up for us. Having arrived at the feeling that England might as well burn down, Williams and Dyer don’t try to offer through Delroy a further, “adequate” response. I like how I can’t quite feel where Delroy ends up, set on a path by (remotely, still alone) looking at his daughter for the first time. He calls her his “fact”; she’s not ours. It’s personal. It can’t be adequate, because it’s not for everyone. It’s his.
Death of England: Delroy will return for socially-distanced performances in Spring 2021. More info here.