Writer: Elliot Warren
Director: Elliot Warren and Olivia Brady
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
If Shakespeare had written EastEnders instead of plays about kings and princes then maybe Flesh and Bone would be this summer’s hit at The Globe. Giving his characters Shakespearian-sounding lines, with both metre and rhyme, Elliot Warren’s play turns the ordinary into the epic. It is sweary and coarse, shouty and broad, and also bloody good.
Set in a tower block in the East End, Flesh and Bone follows the struggles of five people trying to hang on to their working-class roots as gentrification sweeps through the city. While none of the characters is particularly likeable, in true theatrical tradition these people are crafty Cockneys, salt of the earth types, diamond geezers. We’ve all see a Shakespeare play in which the actors overact, and here, too, all the actors overplay their parts to make them larger than life, heroes of their own lives.
Warren plays Terrence, a low-level thug, with conviction and charm, snarling his lines with menace, and then, eventually, charm. He’s so jumpy and unpredictable that his brother Reiss is afraid to tell him that he likes men and sometimes heads into Soho Town to become a ‘massive homosexual.’ As Reiss, Michael Jinks is utterly believable, trying to manoeuvre between his working-class identity and a gay identity that appears more middle-class. His soliloquies bring the audience firmly on his side.
Terrence’s girlfriend Kel (Olivia Brady) is less scared of him, and gives as good as she gets. She is probably the most fully drawn character here, and we get a sense of the reasons why she decides to make a living from talking dirty to men on sex lines. They live with her grandfather (Nick T Frost) who harkens back to the good, old days when geezers wore ‘whistles and flutes’ rather than t-shirts and trainers. ‘Class,’ he suggests, ‘is a forgotten art.’
Underneath their flat lives Jamal, the local drug dealer, who gets caught up in Terrence’s japes. Alessandro Babalola gives every word of Jamal’s an almost physical weight, his West Indian accent, bringing life to his lines. But it’s when Jamal slips off his mask that Babalola really shines. When all five actors are on stage their physical movement is almost like a dance, and their overlapping lines are almost like a song from a musical. They never miss a beat.
With its episodic structure, the politics come as a shock, and the play, foremost a comedy, becomes vital and current. The allusions to Julius Caesar seem right here and when the dogs of war are slipped, it’s clearly a battle of two sides and our sympathies are firmly with our gang. But the laughs come thick and fast, always, and sometimes unnecessarily, undercutting the anger.
While the lines look absurd in the playtext (‘What fuckery does gird thee? Speak! Who be your guvna!’), when they are spoken by this talented cast they are a joy. Despite being performed on an empty stage, this is a vivid examination of an endangered community. Its Shakespearian tones make sure that Flesh and Bone is a play about war, a conflict that is happening right now. It’s easy to pick sides as Warren’s clever and bawdy show makes geezers and birds of us all.
Runs until 21 July 2018 | Image: Owen Baker