What a remarkably raw and human piece of theatre. The libretto of this brutally honest look at working-class life is crafted with such eloquence that it is a joy to listen to. Coupled with such a powerful performance from its cast, this play challenges your preconceptions and presents the complexities of an apparently simple life on an estate in East London.
Before attending, I saw Elliot Warren’s script described as Shakespearian, and it is difficult to argue with this description. He seamlessly mixes traditional poetry with modern London slang in his fast flowing script using a combination of monologues and short scenes to tell this story. Using a poetic style, the play presents everyday life for five reasonably stereotypical characters, but strips back all the layers of these seemingly simple personalities to present real human emotion. They may seem tough and abrasive, but behind these fronts, lays insecurity, fear and secrets. During their monologues, the actors present more expressive and honest versions of themselves, which effectively allows a contradiction between what the characters ‘think’ and ‘say’. At no point does the play loose its realism. In fact, I struggle to recall a more natural and raw portrayal of human life from an ensemble of performers.
It is clear that this is a real passion piece for Warren and co-director Olivia Brady, who also both star in the production, and this shines through in their direction and performances. Despite the lack of set and props they are able to place you directly in the middle of this world that feels so close to home yet another world away. There are clear messages they want to get across relating to social mobility and poverty, but you never feel lectured or made to feel guilty. The use of physicality plays a massive role in their direction, often to accentuate the significance of something, be that a punch in the face or the birth of a child. The use of music and lighting is subtle yet effective. It’s remarkable that using classical music as a backdrop to a fight or argument completely changes the way you witness it.
All the actors deliver gripping performances be that as an ensemble or in their monologues, and it becomes obvious that they are not completely content with their lives. Alessandro Babalola’s contrasting portrayal of who he ‘wants’ to be and who he ‘has’ to be is striking and heart-breaking, as you seen a man not knowing how to be anything than the part he’s been playing for so long. Similarly, you initially see Nick T Frost’s Grandad as the comic relief, constantly making jokes and almost being a caricature of himself. It only takes him dropping a couple of lines between this humour to see that this is because there is nothing else left for him to be.
It is Michael Jinks’ first monologue as Reiss that has particularly stuck with me, however. Coming soon after you see Reiss smashing a glass over someone’s head in a pub fight, he becomes this vulnerable young man struggling with who he is and not being able to talk to anyone about it. Jinks is able to reveal more about the character’s underlying feelings through his awkward body language and gestures than he could with a thousand words. This early scene contradicts the loud and witty opening and changes the way you view this hard-skinned character in the later parts of the play.
While unashamedly intrusive, rude and sweary, Flesh and Bone never relies on cheap laughs or tear jerking moments but rather delivers smart and mature theatre. The performances feel real, the script is wonderfully poetic, and the direction is both passionate and respectful of its setting. This harsh yet beautiful, relatable yet unfamiliar play doesn’t put a foot wrong. An absolute triumph!