Michael Balogun creates the role of Delroy in Clint Dyer and Roy Williams's influential play about a black Englishman's disillusionment
“I’m about as European as a fucking dim sum.”
Two plays written about the state of the nation have been showing at the National Theatre. The first, back in February, was Death of England, starring Rafe Spall as a drunken working class man at his father’s funeral. This sees Michael raging against his father’s death and his father’s friends. Michael describes being at football matches as a child, when his father covers his ears so as not to hear the racist chants, but he can’t hide the bananas being thrown on to the pitch.
The father must know that this is wrong but never challenges his friends who are spouting racism. The tirade is of course about Michael’s own unhappy relationship with his father but he lashes out at many close to him. He is the stereotypical working class man speaking his racist truth fuelled by alcohol. We remember that white working class boys do least well in terms of educational qualifications and getting into higher education.
In the first play Death of England, Michael turns on a man he calls his best friend, Delroy who is black and (was?) in a long term relationship with Michael’s sister Carly. It is Michael’s emphatic and racist description of Delroy’s otherness which stings.
The second play, now showing in the Olivier as Death of England: Delroy, started as a Headlong Guardian miniplay collaboration by Clint Dyer as Dim Sum. Clint Dyer and Roy Williams have described these plays as being about the Black British experience but they are also about a Britain divided in leaving the European Union.
Death of England: Delroy, has had 26 performances at the Olivier sadly cut by the second 2020 lockdown. Michael says Delroy voted Brexit, misunderstanding that the anti-immigration feeling was also about Black people like himself and not just against Eastern Europeans. I know Black people, born here, their parents from the Caribbean, who voted for Brexit but daren’t tell their children.
Delroy’s narrative is a monologue for 90 minutes with a few minutes of recorded Carly. The part was to have been taken by Giles Terera who was hospitalised with acute appendicitis a couple of weeks before the opening and Michael Balogun now takes the role. It is a huge part for any actor, this soliloquy of a play and Balogun is deeply affecting, sincere and likeable.
As an introduction, there is Delroy’s reflection on his job, as a bailiff, repossessing items from people who have defaulted on their rent and unsympathetic as to their impending homelessness. We don’t see this couple on stage at the National but in the Dim Sum film the man bears a deep resemblance to Jeremy Corbyn! Delroy is explaining that what has happened to the defaulters was no surprise. He contrasts this situation with his own mother who came here legally from a British colony Jamaica, has worked as a care attendant, paid her rent, paying taxes and yet not getting the recognition she deserves as a fully paid up member of English society. The set has a hanging gold or brass plaque of Nefertiti symbolising Delroy’s mother and her beautiful symbolic African roots.
Delroy mentions NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the National Anthem in protest at America’s bad treatment of minorities at first in 2016. Obama’s eloquent response to this is a lesson in tolerance and empathy.
Delroy explains his reasoning on the Brexit vote in 2016 with such a memorable quote, “I’m about as British as a fucking dim sum”. He talks about cricket after the BBC theme tune with its distinctive steel band Caribbean rhythm.
Red carpet is rolled out on the set to effectively form the England football emblem, the St George’s Cross but other parts of the set I found ugly and difficult to interpret as adding to the play. Particularly there is the large gold statue which Delroy speaks to. This starts covered by a shroud, and we think this will be a historical figure associated with slavery, like the one of Edward Colston toppled in Bristol and dumped in the water in July 2020. However under wraps, it is a representation of Carly Fletcher, the white woman Delroy loves. She is part Britannia with a large trident and part fertility goddess with flowers on her bosom.
It happened to a Moroccan student of mine going through the tube gates first at Embankment, his female companion got stuck with her travel card on the other side of the gates and as he turned back to help her, he was detained by policemen and taken by the police to the terrorist interview rooms in Paddington Green for four hours of questioning. They had assumed that he turned back because he had seen police officers. He felt the trauma of this for many years afterwards.
In Delroy’s case the repercussions interfere with a life event that cannot be repeated or rearranged and is a lasting cause for sadness. Delroy verbally battles the police, tries to argue with the hospital workers and appears in court. We feel these consequences were because he is black and a white man would have been immediately believed.
The magnificent Michael Balogun shows a terrific range, a bravura performance and his alienation is a real cause for sadness. But there are also moments of humour. You feel in this play the disappointing and disillusioning human experience that has gone into writing, directing and acting in it.
You can watch a fragment, the 2014 miniplay, Death of England, a collaboration between the Royal Court and the Guardian written by Roy Williams, directed by Clint Dyer, published by the Guardian here. This is was extended to 90 minutes and shown at the Dorfman at the National Theatre in February 2020.
Dim Sum, by Clint Dyer, a short play about Delroy was part of Headlong and the Guardian miniplay series and is available with Javone Prince as bailiff Delroy here. Clint Dyer and Roy Williams have collaborated on the longer version Death of England: Delroy showing at the Olivier from 21st October to 4th November 2020.
I have had time to reflect on the complexities of this play having seen it at a preview performance on Saturday 24th October so this is a review of a preview performance and changes may have been made. Is it not disgusting that Death of England: Delroy is the first time a play by a black British playwright has been put on in the Olivier’s space? Can Delroy forgive England and the English ? I wonder whether there will be a further instalment, Death of England: Carly?
Death of England: Delroy
Written by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams
Directed by Clint Dyer
Director: Clint Dyer
Set and Costume Designers: Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey
Lighting Designer: Jackie Shemesh
Sound Designers: Pete Malkin and Benjamin Grant
Running Time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Streamed free from 7pm on 27th November 2020
for 24 hours
Closed at the Olivier, National Theatre
on 4th November 2020 but due to return
to the National in 2021.
London SE1 9PX
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Olivier
on 24th October 2020