Giles Terera confronts toxic masculinity in the dazzling Death of England: Face to Face

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In April, when theatres were still closed, the National wowed with its simmering Romeo and Juliet film starring Jessie Buckley and Josh O’Connor. Death of England: Face to Face is its second production created for the screen, shot once again in the Lyttelton Theatre. Just like the National’s first foray into film-making, it is a visionary piece of artistry.

The film is the third instalment of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s Death of England series. The first, in 2020, saw grieving Eastender Michael (Rafe Spall) give a bracing address about the woes of the working-class white male.

His black best mate Delroy got his turn in last year’s sequel, which was brilliant but dogged by bad luck: first, Hamilton star Giles Terera had to pull out as the lead (Michael Balogun dazzled as his replacement); next, the show was forced to shut thanks to the second national lockdown.

Here, Michael (Neil Maskell) and Delroy (Terera belatedly plays the role) come together on one tumultuous afternoon during lockdown. Delroy is stuck in his east London flat, sporting an electronic tag (the previous play saw him get arrested after being racially profiled by police just as his partner, Carly, went into labour with their first child) when Michael, Carly’s brother, turns up at Delroy’s door with his newborn niece.

The pair have fallen out of late, with Michael mocking Delroy’s pro-Brexit politics and Delroy lambasting the racism embedded in their relationship. It’s a testy afternoon, as they juggle babysitting with quarrelling some more and getting into a fight with Delroy’s neighbours.

Terera is astonishing as Delroy, conveying his fear and frustration with the world, along with the dopey excitement of becoming a new dad. Maskell is similarly magnetic as the cheeky, emotionally immature Michael.

Giles Terera is astonishing as Delroy (Photo: Steffan Hill)

The film tackles knotty themes of race, identity and toxic masculinity but is also extremely funny (Michael’s awkwardness at walking in on his sister breastfeeding is compared to “Priti Patel at a Snoop Dogg gig”).

As director, Dyer relishes the potential of film. Close-up shots are perfect for capturing Michael and Delroy’s quietly combative meeting, while cinematic flashbacks underline how long-held the resentments between the pair have been. I can, however, imagine the story being confusing if you haven’t seen the previous plays, even if the film is meant to stand on its own.

Still, Face to Face is deeply accomplished and not just because it manages to touch on practically every one of the year’s hot-button topics while only ever feeling like a believable portrait of a friendship.

Brilliantly conceived, exhilaratingly performed and, as Delroy and Michael gradually work through their grievances, bursting with hope.

Death of England: Face to Face is on Sky Arts on 25 November at 10pm then available on catch-up

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