Jane Edwardes on the South Bank
12 October 2023
In 2020, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams launched the first of three Death of England plays and one film, which have explored on stage some of the complications and prejudices to be found in multicultural Britain today. The pieces are raw, and occasionally too shouty, but they have important things to say to both black and white people in the audience (who will no doubt receive the plays very differently), and they are made more urgent by the Home Secretary’s declaration that multiculturalism has failed.
Hayley Squires as Carly.
Photo credit: Feruza Afewerki.
The final play, Death of England: Closing Time, aims to stand alone, as Carly (Hayley Squires), a white working-class woman, and Denise (Sharon Duncan-Brewster), the black mother of Carly’s partner Delroy, shut down their shops, one selling flowers, the other West Indian patties, for the very last time. They wait for a buyer to collect the keys. It is surely helpful, however, to know that Carly and Michael, her brother and Delroy’s childhood friend, grew up in a racist household. That Delroy missed the birth of his child because he was wrongfully arrested by the police, and that his absence drove a wedge between him and Carly. And that Delroy meets his daughter for the first time in lockdown, the film ending with Michael persuading him to get together to open the shops using their mothers’ savings. The same shops that have failed at the beginning of Closing Time.
Dyer and Williams, and indeed all the production team, must be blessed with extraordinary resilience to be able to survive the problems that have beset these productions, from Covid shutdowns to illnesses, culminating in Jo Martin falling ill in rehearsals for this final play, forcing her to withdraw and for Duncan-Brewster to step up to the plate. At the performance I saw, Duncan-Brewster was still holding a script for most of the performance and there were times when one felt that she had had to jump to decisions about Denise, rather than being able to explore her more thoroughly in rehearsal. That is not to criticize the actor, who has nobly come to the rescue of the production.
Hayley Squires and Sharon Duncan-Brewster.
Photo credit: Feruza Afewerki.
As in the two previous plays, designers Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and Ultz have set the action on the cross of St George. This is, after all, a state-of-the-nation play. Unlike the two previous plays, there are two performers here not one, which raises problems. The monologues felt as if one as was entering Michael and Delroy’s nightmares as they relived a series of horrific events in a torrent of words. Here, we are very much in the present, although there is nothing naturalistic about Dyer’s production. As they supposedly clear up the shop, the women half-heartedly play around with flowers and pans. A broom, and even Denise’s script, is handed to the audience to hold. Carly’s first meeting with Delroy is imagined in a swirl of smoke and red lights. And both women re-enact events in the past, switching frenetically from one character to another to a background of sound by Benjamin Grant and Pete Malkin.
Why have the shops failed? Partly because Denise refused to have a Covid jab and was unable to work for several weeks. Also, flowers became a luxury during the cost-of-living crisis. But the real reason doesn’t become clear until the second half. Indeed, the first half wanders around far too much and could easily be trimmed. As tension is lost, it is sometimes difficult to engage with the disastrous situation. The relationship between Carly and Denise is fractious and the question is: can they ever be real friends? And do Carly and Delroy have a future together?
Despite early misgivings, Denise has clearly warmed to Carly, her “daughter in sin”, but she keeps stubbing her toe on her ignorance. Denise is at her feistiest when watching the King’s coronation on TV, refusing to respect the others’ enthusiasm for the Windsors, who she dismisses as “a wholesome clean living white military colonialist family”. No wonder she’s not happy about her granddaughter being called Meghan. Was I the only one to be anxious about who was looking after the child, given that Carly’s mum is on holiday, Michael and Delroy at a football match, and Denise and Carly in the shop?
Carly is a jittery motormouth. At the beginning of the second half, we finally learn what she did to ruin the whole enterprise. A patronizing, insulting rant, in which all black men are lumped together, goes viral, and the shops are boycotted. In the painful fallout, Carly looks for someone to blame as Denise accuses her of being a “tourist”, merely wanting the exotic experience of sleeping with a black man. Carly’s insistence that she loves Delroy, and Denise’s patient, if often exasperated, explanations make a rapprochement a possibility – but it is clearly never going to be easy.