Very Berkoff, and very charming, Flesh and Bone is a masculine, pulsing, in-yer-face tribute to the East end inner-city poor.
The show chucks five characters at us: angry brothers Terrence (Warren) and Reiss (McHugh), Terrence’s mouthy girlfriend Kelly (Brady), Kel’s fed-up Grandad (Frost), and their dealer Jamal (Babalola). They all live on the same due-for-demolition estate, and launch themselves at the audience separately and collectively with incredible energy. Flesh and Bone’s characters are assembled from tropes, but are very well-constructed, and are definitely human. It’s more of a collection of personal vignettes rather than a traditional plot. It’s similar to Trainspotting, with monologues, ensemble movement and freewheeling speech that keep things at a brisk pace.
The script is delivered in verse, an amalgam of East-end speech and antiquated phrases, combining into a flowing cockney patter that leads to some incredible lines. It mostly steers clear of being self-indulgent, and carries the momentum of the show. The cast do a fantastic job of taking a writing method that has crippled many good concepts and making it work. There’s a consistent level of polish in the actor’s understanding and delivery of the script. Each actor carries themselves with real presence, displaying the grit and guts that their lines often claim are present. McHugh didn’t quite have the coiled confidence of the others, and Frost was lacking in the physical sections, but these qualities are present in their characters, so that may be intentional.
Flesh and Bone is more hopeful and a bit less reflective than its influences, though it’s not afraid to quote from them. It’s violent and cruel, but depicts frustration rather than squalid misery and could be said to have a happy ending. The show relishes these tumultuous larger-than-life stories, and is less direct than its influences with its politics, mostly allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions on the action. One of the few political through-lines is educations’ relation to opportunity, highlighting characters struggles to find legal work with the repeated phrase “no GCSE’s”. The show is a depiction rather than an analysis, allowing the piece to be direct without demanding immediate self-reflection.
There is some clever pacing to get the audience onside a quickly as possible, though the regular sexualisation of women may make it hard for some to enter the world. The show is a tad too long, and towards the end delivery starts to feel a little samey, but by this point every character has charmed us, threatened us and revealed their inner lives to us. They’ve built personalities, hiding talents and feelings to protect themselves, because it’s hard out there, and it’s this slow gaining of insight into their souls that makes this show a joy to watch.
The soundtrack is a clever selection of dramatic classical pieces that regularly appear in adverts and reality TV, high art made common, echoing the script’s use of Shakespearean phrases. The ferocious performances contrast starkly with the black box space, and the cast are dressed in monochrome sportswear and bed clothes, cheap and depressing.
This is an incredibly entertaining show with a strong cast, a fascinating script and a real sense of its own humanity. It’s surprisingly subtle in its concepts for an in-yer-face piece, and carries a lot of potential.