Film Review: Death of England: Face to Face

One of the great theatre series of the past eighteen months, Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ The Death of England universe adds a new perspective by bringing together characters Michael and Delroy for the first time in a hybrid film, Face to Face, given a one-night only cinema release ahead of its free Sky Arts broadcast on 25 November. Building on two fierce monologues premiering either side of the first lockdown, this latest edition extends the vivid world of two friends struggling to connect when race, identity, family ties and concepts of Britishness come between them. Filmed in the closed Lyttleton Theatre, Face to Face joins the the National Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet as a co-production with Sky Arts that blurs and extends the boundaries between theatre and film, being made available to audiences for free in one of Dyer’s first projects as Deputy Artistic Director.

Although a piece that can standalone, there is value in some familiarity with the preceding plays with the story picking up shortly after the conclusion of Death of England: Delroy which memorably (and briefly) reopened the National Theatre last autumn and christened the Olivier’s in-the-round space. Fascinating explorations of working class masculinity and legacy, the separation of the two friends stems from Michael’s rant at his father’s funeral, directed at his best friend, and from Delroy missing the birth of his baby daughter due to an officious police stop and search detailed in his monologue.

The expectation that Face to Face will involve a decisive clash between Delroy and Michael is part of the set-up as Dyer and Williams look to explore notions of male rage and the recourse to violence that stems from feelings of isolation and otherness that merely perpetuate rather than resolve issues. Filmed in Delroy’s flat during the course of several hours in which Michael unexpectedly brings his niece to see her father for the first time, Dyer and Williams’ third instalment is primarily a linguistic piece in which (as is their style) both characters report events in retrospect while dramatically reproducing voices of other unseen characters and each other’s. As a director, Dyer retains this approach to a point but uses film techniques to create drive and visual interest by placing multiple versions of Delroy and Michael on screen simultaneously.

We see the pair in the present speaking to the viewer and casting aspersions on the other’s testimony while at the same time looking back to hours before to replay the scenario they are describing. Only, when Michael remembers these events, he continues to speak for Delroy with his voice coming from Delroy’s lips and vice versa, linking back to the original stage plays in their use of mimicry to tell multi-character stories. It’s a technique that takes some getting used to, but is used sparringly enough that it rarely jars but references the particular theatrical language of Dyer and Williams’ writing style.

The version control of Michaels and Delroys at different points in time is also drawn from this context, and a feature of both earlier Death of England stories has been this tendency to talk about events in retrospect during which the individual slips into dialogue as though it were the dramatic present. In Face to Face, that idea is given a visual signature by editing and layering shots of the actors together to imply the present and past versions co-existing rather than using flashback techniques or a more simplified chronological structure. Here, it also creates a jauntiness that highlights the comedy in the writing, where Delroy or Michael can comment on their own behaviour in the recent past and, crucially, each others by raising an ironic eyebrow or appearing from unusual places.

The overall effect can be hit and miss but it does two important things; first in utilising camera techniques unavailable if this were purely a stage piece that offer an alternative visual means to tell this story, while, secondly, questioning the veracity and integrity of the storyteller. One thing audiences have learned from meeting Delroy and Michael separately are the areas where their accounts complement or contradict one another through the information they choose to share or omit. As a theatre studies exercise, placing these three plays side-by-side like oral history testimonies highlights these differences, suggesting an ultimate truth lies somewhere between all of them while acknowledging the validity of individual interpretations and, most importantly, noting that each successive play offers character as well as dramatic development in the overall story.

There is an integral he said / he said structure at work, but both Delroy and Face to Face chronologically move the story on, so while Alan’s funeral and Michael’s speech as well as Delroy’s confrontation with Michael at the hospital where his daughter is born are continual references, key turning points in the friendship and the narrative, each new play takes place months later, giving the story fresh momentum. The comprehensiveness of this universe and the vivid nature of the surrounding characters is such that new scenarios for them appear to grow organically from what has gone before. By the end of Face to Face, we know both men a little better, not only how they have dealt with the consequences of their individual stories, guilt and separation, but the audience is shown their friendship, how they interact and respond to one another when their pal is physically present in front of them which moves the Death of England series from memory plays in which individuals look backwards, to a construct where activities in the present equally shape the outcomes and suggested future direction of their relationship.

We see this shift from past to present, from reflection to forward-looking across the film through the change in their friendship, which seemed hostile and broken beyond repair, moving first to common ground and rapprochement and then to camaraderie and mutual support as the pair must unite to take care of the baby and deal with the persistent angry neighbour upstairs. And it is a slow thawing as the issues of identity, race, family and betrayal play out, so while these were already rich and multifaceted characters, from their interaction, the banter and teasing, comes an extraordinary affection as well.

These two people know each other incredibly well, best friends for more than half their lives and as the previous instalments have demonstrated, they can hurt each other more deeply than anyone. But underneath the bile, outrage and anger, these men are forever connected, not quite two halves of a whole but a partnership that may change or even lapse yet remains solid at its foundation. Face to Face reminds Michael and Delroy that for all the things they have allowed to come between them and to distinguish them, ultimately they are more the same than different, grown in the same soil of their East London neighbourhood and better together than apart. And while all of that may sound grandiose or even overly romantic, Dyer and Williams rarely make it so in practice, couching their tale in explorations of male violence and the effects of bandwagoning when so much else is at stake.

When we meet them in Chapter 1 entitled ‘The Aftermath’, Delroy’s flat is in considerable disarray as though an altercation of some kind has taken place. With it comes certain expectations about the cause of that disruption against which Dyer and Williams must work, managing and subverting our expectations about the next 80-minutes. And, eventually, there is a well-staged confrontation that looks at why men commit violent acts, notions of tribal loyalties and the results of these encounters which only ever escalate rather than resolve a dispute.

More interesting though is the impulse control the leads experience in which the tendency to violence erupts instinctually and almost in spite of themselves. Too limited time is ultimately given to this debate but there are character insights into the nature and cultural expectations of modern masculinity, particularly when juxtaposed with a nurturing or caring role for Delroy’s new baby. This muddies the waters for them all and suggests a future direction for these stories exploring manliness in transition as age and responsibility alter their view of themselves and their primary purpose as men.

Face to Face is a chance for Giles Terera to return to a role that ill-health prevented him from playing and was instead assumed by his understudy Michael Balogun who gave an astonishing performance to reopen the National Theatre with Death of England: Delroy – now both actors are touring in a two-character piece. Terera has lost none of his feel for Delroy and here the character has somewhat mellowed, taken beyond the painful and incendiary circumstances that preceded the birth of his child. Stuck alone in lockdown, Delroy is now calmer, more at ease with his paternal status and ready to revisit his feelings about the Fletcher family.

Terera plays the street-smart Delroy as a man maturing as the story unfolds, able to put the past into a different perspective to find the long connection to it, the integrated experience of shared memory and friendship with Michael and sister Carly that will continue to shape his future. But Delroy is also concerned with legacy and the world that he is creating, so while Terera finds comedy in the appearance of Alan’s mouth on his baby which links seamlessly with the conclusion of the previous play, he also acknowledges the impact of the baby’s presence in defining not just who Delroy is but who he now needs to be.

Neil Maskell also inherits the role of Michael from Rafe Spall who launched the series in terrific style with the powerful series opener in February 2020. But Michael too is a different man now, chastened and regretful about his past actions and seeing his niece as an opportunity to make amends with his best friend. Maskell’s Michael is almost a broken man by this point, certainly some energy or feeling within him has died since the manic funeral oration that severed his friendship. We got an inkling of someone trying to turn their life around through Delroy’s earlier monologue and Maskell gives him an inner calm and compassion, a man who has learned things about himself that he doesn’t particularly like and now wants to atone.

He feels like the junior partner sometimes, waiting for Delory’s lead but while ashamed, he recognises the value of this long friendship in defining who he is now, their shared memories and experiences integral to Michael’s personality and confidence. But Michael is still haunted by his overbearing parents and we briefly glimpse both mother and father in cutaways – played by Maggie Saunders and the wonderful Phil Daniels. These flashes of memory and unresolved issues with Alan continue to shape the lives of both men, while Maskell also draws on the greater exploration of the relationship with sister Carly (Amy Newton) who now connects the friends. This strong Fletcher family dynamic drives Maskell’s Michael, seeing their new blood link as a means to repair the relationship and, while tentative, Michael is the most forward-looking of the two as he seeks reconciliation and a more stable future connection, something he is prepared to physically fight for.

Death of England: Face to Face may be most meaningful to those with an understanding of the character histories but does offer both a satisfying conclusion and future possibilities for the series. Should Dyer and Williams turn their hand to a female voice, then Carly seems an obvious choice, although domineering Alan may eventually earn his own prequal. Primarily, the continuation of this story in a new hybrid format after showing Delroy for free during the second lockdown, further emphasises the growing adaptability of the Death of England collection as it explores the changing demands of British identity.

Death of England: Face to Face was screened in cinemas on 2 November and will be broadcast via Sky Arts on 25 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of cultural activities in London, primarily covering theatre, but also exhibitions and film events. Since 2014, I have written for The Reviews Hub as part of the London theatre critic team, professionally reviewing over 800 shows in that time. The Reviews Hub was established in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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