An East London sink estate is the setting for Eliot Warren’s visceral, tragicomic depiction of life in the margins of twenty-first century Britain. The writer-director also stars as perennial Angry Boy Terry, who along with his brother Reiss, girlfriend Kel, her grandad and their menacing neighbourhood dealer, Jamal, form Flesh and Bone’s tight-knit ensemble. This cast pulses with kinetic energy, synchronised movements of stylised aggression underscoring their deep-set bonds of cultural and social identity.
The plot takes shape across a series of monologues and largely comic set pieces, and dialogue is delivered in mock(ney) Shakespearean verse, enhancing the rhythm and pace of an already frenetic narrative. That stylistic choice is a bold one (and could be full of pitfalls), but Warren handles it deftly – the demotic verses, in which “shits” and “fucks” flow in cheerful abandon, is masterfully delivered by the cast, with enough tongue-in-cheek to make the audience overlook any gratuitously inverted sentences, or overabundance of “doths”.
The monologue sequences are rightly relished by each cast member, offering glimpses of the softer qualities underlying permanently embattled exteriors. Olivia Brady as Kel masquerades as a French coquette on a phone sex line to earn a few quid, while harbouring dreams of becoming a singer. Her ingenuity and quick delight raise laughter, but her doleful assessment of her existence to date – most of which has been spent “sat on my arse” – lays bare her vulnerability, her keen sense of wasted potential. Elsewhere, Reiss reveals his secret life as a bartender in a West End gay club, where his own buried sexual predilections lie: his plaintive question as to why one can’t “be a geezer and fabulous” earns the night’s biggest laugh. Sitting in state in his armchair, Grandad muses over lives that might have been, while still firmly wedded to the estate that his been his home his whole life. Outside of the family group, Jamal, played with slightly unhinged intensity by Alessandro Babalola, is a hulking menace, doling out colourful threats alongside his more prosaic bags of hash and speed. Except he’s not – not really – as he shamefacedly admits to being a pacifist at heart, a lover of the Great British Bake Off and long, quiet walks.
Flesh and Bone has an implicit political edge to it rather than didactic messaging, although is no less heartfelt for that. Terry, labelled as a “problem case” as a child, tells us that the system has relentlessly stigmatised him, leaving him eternally locked in combat with the structures that denied him a better future. Jamal’s address stymies his attempts to get a job, and Kelly blames her poverty for not being on the pill and the resulting, ill-timed pregnancy (although contraception is free on the NHS for both women and men, as someone as sharp as Kel would surely know).
“The establishment’ are sent up in a slew of plummy voices and condescending laughter; they are “them over there” who think the estate is an eyesore, and are willing to countenance any number of underhand tricks to get it demolished. If that depiction of the enemy is a little unnuanced, it at least doesn’t feel altogether toothless, thanks mainly to the character’s ferocious opposition, their furious helplessness, in the face of factors decided before they were born. “You take everything”, screams Kelly towards the play’s close, all the more distressing for being directed at an opponent so smoothly faceless and ubiquitous, always possessing the upper hand.
Although it premiered in December 2016, Flesh and Bone feels as if it can only have grown in relevance, as shades of the Grenfell Tower fire, and what it reveals about government and society’s attitude to its poorest members, now colour the narrative. Well-muscled and with plenty of swagger, this play is still, as its title suggests, restlessly aware of the how perilously close to the surface the real vulnerabilities lie.
Flesh and Bone is playing at the Soho Theatre until 21 July 2018
Photo: Owen Baker