Hayley Squires in rehearsal for ‘Death of England: Closing Time’. Image: Feruza Afewerki

Women in the universe

‘Death of England: Closing Time’ and a new production of ‘Pygmalion’ raise the question—intentionally or not—of female emancipation
October 4, 2023

Eliza Doolittle dreamt of opening a flower shop. The heroine of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and its musical adaptation My Fair Lady imagined a florist’s to be her ticket to independence.

Carly Fletcher, a streetwise London girl younger by a century, shares Eliza’s dream. In 2020, Death of England, the National Theatre’s sequence of plays by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams, introduced audiences to Alan Fletcher, a brawling white supremacist with a Leyton flower stall. In Death of England: Closing Time, this year’s new and final instalment, we meet daughter Carly, who plans to expand the family patch into a full-scale shop. That means going into business with Denise—the black neighbour whom Alan spent years abusing, now Carly’s mother-in-law. This uneasy partnership and Carly’s mixed-race daughter, named for Meghan Markle, constitute Dyer and Williams’s metaphor for a multicultural England. 

Closing Time opened at the National’s Dorfman theatre a day after Richard Jones’s new production of Pygmalion at the Old Vic. Both examine Englishness and social mobility. No surprises that it is Closing Time that feels the more contemporary. Yet Pygmalion, powered by Patsy Ferran and Bertie Carvel, is capable of producing fireworks—especially when Ferran’s Eliza and Carvel’s Higgins set-to in their battle of the sexes. Closing Time, by contrast, is likely to leave feminist audiences tantalised but disappointed.

Why put on Pygmalion in 2023? Social inequality is as relevant as ever, but one’s capacity for Received Pronunciation has never been less salient. Jones’s production jerks between topicality and anachronism—Higgins’s nerdish demonstrations in Edwardian-era phonetic theory, jabbing at out-of-date diagrams with blackboard pointers, only feel more out of place as Eliza’s wardrobe develops from grubby trainers to the Autumn/Winter 23 palette. 

The project was evidently built around Ferran, whose latest success in A Streetcar Named Desire confirmed her as a critical darling. Contemporary critics are discouraged from writing about actresses’ appearances, but casting directors make no such pretences, and thus in her early days Ferran found herself cast as a succession of gawky maids in period dramas. Her dramatic style also lends itself well to nervous, ungainly young women all too aware they’re being sidelined—she was superb in the Old Vic’s 2021 production of Camp Siegfried, as an increasingly unhappy wallflower at a fascist summer camp for nubile teenagers.

Search for a star role for Patsy Ferran, and some bright spark was sure to come up with Eliza Doolittle. There’s little other reason for this revival, a year after audiences were treated to the ENO’s delightful My Fair Lady. Thanks to Ferran’s wit, things really get going when Eliza takes charge of her life—picking up hopeless admirer Freddie for a night of pure girlboss gratification; returning to tell Carvel’s camped-up Higgins that she’s going solo. Their exchanges about his domestic learned helplessness produce a tender mutual recognition. But Eliza’s life under his tutelage is a rushed series of cinematic montages, denying us the opportunity to truly watch her develop.

Things really get going when this Eliza Doolittle takes charge of her life

In Closing Time, Denise and Carly’s mutual education is slower paced and all the richer. The odds are stacked even further against them than against Eliza—especially for Denise, whom Jo Martin imbues with a weary antiracist frustration still capable of cracking into outright despair. Hayley Squires is a sharp, likeable Carly, desperate to fit in but never sure with whom. A female double-hander, Closing Time follows a series of all-male plays. If there’s a weakness, it is in giving the impression that Denise and Carly have been placed on stage solely to voice more stories about the men of the Death of England universe. 

Closing Time is a play defined by the people we’re not seeing on stage. It shares this quality with the other major production of the season, Andrew Scott’s one-man adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Duke of York’s. In Scott’s virtuoso performance, he voices the dialogue of every character, shifting personae from second to second. But it’s not the role he’s playing at any moment that we relate to—it’s always, somehow, the person he’s looking at. Scott’s is the most heartbreaking performance of the year, an on-stage cipher for ourselves as we react to each character’s pain.

Closing Time is similarly built around the negative-impression of absent characters. Denise’s son Delroy dominates: feckless in her eyes; recast by Carly as a vulnerable, beloved bedfellow. This is a better production than Pygmalion. Yet one wishes that these contemporary working women could follow Eliza Doolittle and break free.