Sarah Bloomer is impressed by the realistic approach of this wonderful play at the Royal Exchange.
The very word "flesh" said aloud conjures an unpleasant image of gratuitous, lustful nakedness, but lingering on your tongue is a final ‘shhh' that quietens the visual and tenderises the tone. One look at the poster image for Monkeywood's latest offering and it is obvious that beneath the layers of mascara and hot pants there is a greater intimacy than the title suggests.
Shannon and Dylan are 16 and in love. An ardent, heart-stopping, all-consuming love that results in an indelible commitment they are neither responsible, nor mature enough to handle. Georgia is 26, has lost her son to social services and been moved into secure housing away from her abusive partner, Carl. The two narratives are inter-woven to present two sides of the same story: unplanned young pregnancy.
The play opens to a voice recording of the real-life experiences of young parents in Manchester as they recount their memories of discovering they are pregnant. A paradigm of predictable characterisation follows. Shannon (played by Sarah McDonald Hughes, whose virtuosic depiction of this challenging role is testament to both her exceptional stage presence and her laconic writing abilities) is a wayward teenager with an appetite for rebellion. Dylan (played by Curtis Cole in smouldering hooded deity) grew up in the care system.
The cautiously vulnerable Georgia's (Francesca Waite) delusions of optimism are brilliantly and quietly contrasted with pained realisations that "It's just me against an army".
Monkeywood Theatre pride themselves on representing an otherwise unheard community of voices and their dedication to the cause is evident. Flesh is based on the real experiences of young parents in Manchester following extensive research into their true stories, opinions and insights.
The story covers every angle — from conception to the aftermath of birth and the devastating effects of those pressures on a relationship — "we don't have enough love" is as much a statement of realisation as it is a desperate search for reassurance. The actors are on set for the duration of the piece, but the lighting is used effectively to indicate a scene change. There are several outstanding monologues — particularly by Cathy (Meriel Schofield), who provides the unabridged voice of reason and disappointment — that are deftly used as tools to progress the narrative.
The momentum never falters, not even in the final exchange, which ends rather abruptly as the audience, having invested almost ninety minutes of their undivided attention, are denied the closure of a restoratively satisfying outcome. But that's real life.
So perhaps I should close with a nod towards the bigger picture. Flesh is a pragmatic, reactionary depiction of an all too familiar event. But education and glorification sit either side of a fine line and although the play is careful to walk between, the real triumph of this play remains in the changing disparity of society.
- Sarah Bloomer