Brexit gets only a couple of mentions in this roar of a monologue by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams. But the play – state of the nation, and what a state – is driven by the same fuel: fear and rage, devotion and loathing. Their sharp writing lays bare a strange paradox that you can love your country and hate what it’s become.
It takes a few minutes, but Rafe Spall slowly accumulates control of the room. As chipper Essex boy Michael, he jokes with the audience and brings them on side. When he’s done that, he doesn’t let go – not for 100 minutes, in a phenomenal, full-force, guts-out performance.
Michael’s dad was a flower seller on an East End market stall, a racist, a Brexiteer, a West Ham supporter for life, until he died. Partly through a drunken, cards-on-the-table eulogy about who his dad really was, partly in an attempt to unpick all the conflicts that occupy his life and beliefs, Michael rants.
His stage is a St George flag – design by Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and Ultz. Red at first, it’s then lit with restless shifts of tone and intensity by Jackie Shemesh.
Michael grabs at props in cubby holes; there’s screaming music and big reveals. Dyer, who also directs, throws everything at the production.
But in the frenzy there’s minute detail, too: Spall’s slight stagger in the pub as he balances a round of drinks while keeping one eye on the football, his instantaneous transformation into a Jamaican woman, his wild dance as he hears a recording of his dad’s voice.
It’s a miracle Spall’s own voice makes it through the show – all yells, hoarse and throaty and full of post-nasal snorts – but it’s incredible to see him just go for it. And the rage has purpose: for Michael as an individual, it’s the way he processes grief. Spall captures that fine line between sadness and anger so clearly, as he forces himself to turn his sobs into shouts.
The restless, ‘try everything’ staging reflects the writing. It’s a long monologue and there is a sense, maybe two thirds of the way through, that it doesn’t really know where to go. It swerves towards strangeness, then neatness, in a way that’s at odds with an incredibly fiery, knotty beginning intertwining class, racism, family, nationhood and nationalism.
The fallout from the biggest, bluntest ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question of this country’s recent history has been to reduce people to their barest, most extreme opinions. But at its best, this play demonstrates the capacity we have for complex and contradictory thoughts. Michael loves and hates his dad simultaneously.
In their attempt to understand Michael and the white, working-class community he comes from, Dyer and Williams certainly don’t exonerate racism. Rather, they look at how it’s been passed down through generations when things are supposed to have been getting better.