FringeReview UK 2018
Elliott Warren is writer and co-director with the story created by him and co-director Olivia Brady. Lighting and sound are also maanged by Soho and the co-director’s own Unpolished Theatre.
There’s a creative instability in Flesh and Bone as the inside of the text has it, or Flesh & Bone anywhere else. It’s now a roiling eighty-minute sucker-punch coming to the Soho Theatre, expanded from its 2016 premiere and Edinburgh run, where it won a Fringe First. Unpolished Theatre must take credits for lighting and Chopin Nocturnes to Mozart ‘s Requiem appositely cued, though no-one’s named.
There’s instability too in Elliott Warren as writer and co-director when the story’s explicitly created by him and co-director Olivia Brady. It’s their debut play, both authors explicitly listed as story creators under the title. Perhaps Warren’s the crafter of its pub-Shakespeare verse and prose; braggadocio themes ripple and flare but are undercut by (presumably) Brady’s explicit content about everything from sex-chat lines, sexual pleasure, irritation with a feckless lover and childbirth. Both authors in any case act superlatively in a cast of five.
They’ve acted superbly before, and this is where authorship and tradition in this homage to East London and grandfathers, brothers and ‘birds’ begs other questions. Warren and Brady performed in a recent revival of another debut play, Berkoff’s East, written in 1975 when he was already thirty-nine. I didn’t know this till after, but it was obvious: the whump of muscled language, the choral opening grunted with threats, the throat-tickling linger on words like ‘power maketh man’ and the like. If you know stylised Berkoff, you’ll know exactly what to expect. Warren (we’ll assume the verse is his) quite deliberately echoes Berkoff’s manner and several themes. As Warren makes clear in his homage to his own family, this is his heritage, and one might add, his time.
Yet there’s more in this sarf-east homage than Berkoff and inevitably differences. Whilst there’s a grandfather reminiscing about the 1950s, not the 1930s, it’s more nostalgic, where the blonde girl Eliza he won succumbs to alcohol poisoning. There’s the deliciously funny episode of Brady’s Kel coping with one of her regular sex-chat clients in her Joanna Lumley voice, rather annoyed with this old lecher, neither of them realizing they’re related. It’s been done elsewhere but is excellent here.
Nick T Frost is authoritative as Grandad. He’s also comically vulnerable. He narrates his section with a faraway lyric mist and pungent relish for the old particular ways that’s as infectious as the younger generation’s strut.
Brady’s push-bra poetics are just one side of her expressive range, from laddette aggression, through lyricism and memory, desire and gratification through to blistering disappointment, and her desire to be a singer thwarted at least for the moment as Kel becomes pregnant. Brady can sing too.
Above all two things stand out. First, Berkoff’s intellectual heritage (Tippet’s Third Sonata, Britten operas, and so on) and the historical scrunch around Cable Street and fascism isn’t there.
Something else is, though. With Grenfell’s shadow falling between the first and new performances of Flesh and Bone, it’s difficult not to see the deliberate infestation of the old high-rises with rats by the local council, and the demolishers threatening its residents, as unrelated to Grenfell where class-cleansing killed seventy-two.
Warren’s not explicit about politics till the thirteenth and final scene, and then only in a general protest. But ultimately it’s a political play: positioning class and identity, pride and humiliation rippling through from your first school expulsion to expulsions from all you know. No wonder Mozart’s Requiem here is so apposite: it’s one of those cultural gestures that Berkoff would recognize, but Berkoff doesn’t use this kind of sound-patching. It works with enormous affect here.
Flesh and Bone is ultimately heart-warming, even from the first pub smash-up over being two pounds short and skinning the barman, and accidentally hitting Jamal. Now Jamal isn’t the kind of person you hit. The towering Alessandro Babalola employs two registers: a gruff dark guttural enunciating poetry with a gravelly authority, and the vulnerable boyish voice of a twenty-six-year old whom people don’t approach except one girl very drunk who then vomits when performing a blow-job. He confesses something astonishing. There’s more to uncover about Jamal, and it’s worth it.
Michael Jinks’ Reiss, younger brother of Warren’s Terence or Tel, has a secret too, and is terrified that’ll come out. Jinks invests Reiss with a hidden poetry, a plangency of desire that renders him poetic as Brady and Babalola reveal themselves to be.
Warren’s Tel exudes confidence and centres everything, but is as dispossessed as any of them. ‘Oh for this virile eloquence shall burn so brightly!’ he starts a final paean to the living his own family inspired in him, and is one of his mainstays as he points out in his introduction. There’s many stories and sections related here, potent thoughts of death and – near the end – birth (a strategically utilised football with graphic displays). The audience brought into the mix responded with predictable warmth to such a virtuoso display. Echt? Perhaps but Warren’s heritage is similar to other writers, it’s his as much as theirs, and it’s his time to re-tell it now, with new notes and a love of language that muscles in and won’t let go. More than a roistering flex of word and attitude, it’s even finer where Warren torches into shadows. He finds a soft veined underbelly. What we need is a second play to confirm such a bursting talent.