Reviewed by David James
In the liner notes of Flesh & Bone, writer, director and actor Elliott Warren instructs that his play should be "performed with bestial fire" and that you should "rattle the house in which you play". It's safe to say that this staging in the Soho Theatre does that, serving up a sinuous, focused and muscular piece of drama that enters with the confidence of a boxer who knows the title belt is his.
Set in the East End, the play is set within an estate under threat of demolition and subsequent redevelopment (no doubt into luxury flats). Residing within are twitchy young waster Terrence (Elliott Warren), his girlfriend Kelly (Olivia Brady), his brother Reiss (Michael Jinks), Kelly's Grandad (Nick T. Frost) and, in the flat downstairs, their dealer Jamal (Alessandro Babalola).
On paper they're broad working class stereotypes: a collection of dodgy, beer-swilling geezers waiting their turn to be disapprovingly paraded around on the Jeremy Kyle Show. But Warren peels back the surface to reveal a series of viscerally three-dimensional internal lives. For example, Reiss is secretly gay, giddily Queening it up in Soho before shrinking back into the closet as the bus home heads eastwards. Dealer Jamal has constructed an impervious tower of 6-foot-tall, ripped masculine intimidation on which to perch, yet it conceals a frustrated, vulnerable man who feels surrounded by stoned zombies.
Their revelations are delivered in stunningly lyrical writing that's half Elizabethan and half contemporary street, the disparate styles mashed up with surreal ease and naturalism. While Warren constantly slides famous lines from Shakespeare into the monologues (the play opens with "What a piece of work is a man.") it doesn't fetishise them. Rather, the quotes feel like the grain of sand inside an oyster around which the pearl forms, the dialogue elegantly and artfully expanding from this bedrock to create something equally brutal and beautiful.
I really can't overstate how fucking incredible this script, bristling with glottal rhythms and aggressively spat bilabial bullets. It looks as fun to perform as it is to watch, each image and concept seamlessly flowing into the next, each character drawn in crystal clarity and each laser-targeted gag landing dead-on.
Faintly miraculously, the show has assembled a cast that's the equal of its script. You can't slide a Rizla between them in terms of quality: but I particularly adored Michael Jinks' conspiratorial delight in recounting a happy Soho evening, Olivia Brady's hilarious Joanna Lumley impression she uses on her phone sex line and Alessandro Babalola's transformations between hard nut dealer and awkward little boy.
The cast is so good that the fact they're performing on an empty stage to a plain black backdrop never really enters into the equation. Thing is, the play occupies this space perfectly: the cast buzzing around the room like electrons around a nucleus, somehow occupying all spaces at once. Their individual moments are punctuated by well composed and executed frozen tableaux, with the best physical moment when a chaotic bar fight transforms into a series of comic-book panels.
I enjoyed every moment of Flesh & Bone, though my favourite seems to summarise everything I liked about it. It comes after Reiss has finally come out of the closet to his brother Terrence, explaining that it's taken so long because he's scared that he'll react with violent disgust. Reiss leaves the stage and Terrence delivers a blisteringly sad monologue in which he reflects on how he's perceived by his family, friends and society:
"What is it about me that my own family cannot unsee? Is it that I'm mindless, thick with heat. That I carry great weight upon my back. That I cannot help but be bad. Praps this pestilent pressure I do pour upon my blood is my only pith. What else might a man like me have? No dreams to be had. How can a man like me be a fucking dad?"
Man it's good. The only downside is that all the plays I'm going to see in the coming weeks will seem that more much pale and flaccid in comparison to this. If you just see one thing in the theatre this summer you've got to make it this!
Flesh & Bone is at the Soho Theatre until 21 August. Tickets here.