Written by Unpolished Theatre’s Elliot Warren, who also performs and directs alongside co-founder Olivia Brady, Flesh and Bone is a funny, gritty and sharply topical portrayal of everyday life on a working-class estate in East London.
Tel (Warren) lives with his brother Reiss (Michael Jinks), his girlfriend Kel (Brady) and her grandad (Nick T Frost) in a rat-infested apartment block that’s just been scheduled for demolition. With money scarce, wannabe singer Kelly puts her vocal talents to profitable use by getting a job on a sex chatline, and Reiss works behind the bar in a Soho club, where he makes a startling – and not entirely welcome – discovery about his sexuality. Meanwhile Grandad’s mourning the loss of the good old days, and Tel, whose rage issues mean he can’t hold down a job, ends up robbing the local corner shop with downstairs neighbour and local drug dealer Jamal (Alessandro Babalola) in an attempt to raise some extra cash.
They’re a motley crew, as evidenced in an opening scene that sees them all caught up in a violent brawl over a plate of scampi at the local pub. But while the play is, on the surface, a comedy that revels in its characters’ larger than life personalities, its message is more complex than we might first assume. As each of the five steps into the spotlight to tell their story, we get a glimpse beyond the stereotype and begin to appreciate their daily struggle to be seen, heard and understood, not just by the rest of society but within their own community. Each of the five characters hides a secret from their peers, held back from revealing the truth by a fear of judgment – and yet despite these internal fractures, in moments of crisis they’re able to put their differences aside and come together to defend their way of life against outside threats.
The company’s name is very quickly revealed to be a misnomer, as the play’s first rate cast are anything but unpolished. Everything about the performance is so slick and assured that even the script’s infusion of Shakespearean verse with a 21st century Cockney flavour feels completely natural, and combined with the intricately choreographed physicality of the ensemble scenes, holds our unwavering attention for the play’s full 80 minutes. The audience is an acknowledged and important part of the production, which draws us into the world of the characters with its humour and honesty, but never quite lets us forget that we’re only there as observers – so while Tel, Kel and friends may pour out their hearts to us, they’re also not afraid to issue a challenge if they feel they’re not being taken seriously. We’re on their turf, and they make sure we know it.
Inspired by Elliot Warren’s own East End heritage, Flesh and Bone is an affectionate, entertaining and unapologetically irreverent tribute to a community that’s much more than a caricature, and has plenty to say for itself if only anybody would listen. But it also tackles universal themes – homosexuality, bereavement, misogyny and more – that will strike a chord with audiences from any background. If this is the debut production from Unpolished Theatre, then I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Flesh and Bone is at Soho Theatre until 21st July.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉