Sometimes you don’t quite know what you’re letting yourself in for.
I teach a month’s summer school course on theatre to overseas students under the auspices of Kingston University. I take them to a cross section of plays in the West End, the National, Globe and the fringe, and each year I choose one new play for what I call a close analysis, whereby they get to read the script beforehand and workshop the play and imagine how they would stage it, before seeing it.
This year I chose FLESH AND BONE on the strength of its reviews. A gritty, urban piece set on an East London estate, written in heightened, Shakespearean language and performed, said the critics, with gusto. Perfect, I thought, for my students to get a glimpse into a bit of true, gritty, East End London culture.
I booked the show and then bought the script at first opportunity, read it and thought – Whoops. I was expecting in-yer-face, and a good deal of profanity of course. What I wasn’t anticipating was the female character, Kelly (Olivia Brady), chatting up her granddad on a sex chat line (unknowingly I hasten to add), or the central male character Terrence (Elliot Warren) biting off the head of a rat.
So I presented the script to my young protégées (from the US and Australia and all female as it happens) with some trepidation. Would I stand accused of corrupting their delicate minds?
The first thing that astonished me was how much they loved the play on reading it, and even more so on seeing it performed – upstairs at the Soho Theatre, on a bare stage in front of black curtains, with no set and minimal props. The cast of five, including Olivia Brady and Elliot Warren, who created and directed it, deliver this piece of doubtful morality with such punch and commitment that not only is it screamingly funny, it is completely – well mostly – inoffensive. Half-hearted it is not. On a steaming hot summer’s night in that confined space those five performers give the piece 150 percent, and the audience reacted accordingly. It is a master class in how to deliver outrage and comedy with such conviction and seriousness as to disarm any kind of reservation one might have about its dubious content.
The performances were outstanding throughout, especially Alessandro Babalola as neighbour and drug dealer Jamal – huge and terrifying one moment, a puppy dog the next: another master class on how to hold an audience in the palm of your hand.
There were one or two quibbles: the actors could pay more attention to audience members seated in the side seats, rather than directing everything out front. And the rat massacre, the high spot of the whole play, was – especially following the beautifully choreographed fight – not as bold or as inventive as were hoping.
Those quibbles aside, this is an astounding evening. You even gets shots of Chopin and Strauss and Mozart. An altogether highly polished piece of theatre from Unpolished Theatre.
Flesh & Bone runs until 21 July at the Soho Theatre