Review: Flesh and Bone (Soho Theatre)

Elliot Warren’s debut play comes to the Soho Theatre

Alessandro Babalola in Flesh and Blood
Alessandro Babalola in Flesh and Blood
© Owen Baker

Imagine if Shakespeare was with us today. Would he not look upon the comedies and tragedies of a housing estate in east London and say, well, I did tell you back in 1599 that all the world's a stage?

For new writer Elliot Warren, there is no question about it: the drama of the humble housing block deserves its place on the highest possible plinth. That drama has been elevated to the very rafters of the Soho Theatre. Warren's raw, rambunctious debut play here is one he also directs and acts in.

Flesh and Bone gives a voice to a working-class group whose would otherwise go unheard in the concrete reverberations of their local-authority housing. Its story focuses on a modern East End family, and some of the others around them who also inhabit this claustrophobic concrete jungle. And they speak in a sort of modern-day cockney Shakespearean, which could almost drift into the territory of grime music if only a line or two was delivered in rap.

Man, girlfriend, brother, grandfather, downstairs neighbour – all of these snarling co-habitants share one, uneasy space. Veins throbbing and fists pumping, they wage war on themselves, impregnate one another – and do everything else that certain newspapers tell you people do on council estates. But in among all this, each character spits out countless delicate words that articulate their very human conditions – explaining why each is more sinned against than sinning.

Think Bard-inspired soliloquies and epithets. Unpolished Theatre may be the company's name, but polished prose is often its game, and by and large it manages this without sounding too contrived. The play's production, meanwhile, feels suitably bare-boned.

There is no weak link in the cast – Warren and the play's co-creator Olivia Brady are the central boyfriend-girlfriend who love each other in the most dysfunctional and relatable way possible.

But the standout performance is from Alessandro Babalola as Jamal: the black, muscular downstairs neighbour who sells "herbal remedies" and robs shops, but who also sports a furrowed brow, and secretly longs un-stick himself from the "treacle of my estate".

The villains, offstage, are the bulldozers. Dealing with gentrification and the changing face of the city – and those left behind by authorities – Flesh and Bone is a true Londoner's play for a post-Grenfell era.

While very funny, the play is also a work with acute social consciousness. In particular, it's keen to lampoon a popular view of the working class as a kind of grotesque circus. After a particularly bawdy moment (many of them seem to involve unwiped a***s), characters will break free from the comedy, single out audience members, and deliver them a robust challenge.

Warren's point – and it is an interesting one – seems to be that theatregoing can be a form of exploitation. Because whether it's taking land or buildings from the working class, or even deriving laughs from them, the end result can be equally worrisome. Yes, all the world is a stage and the council estate is no exception. But, Warren says, these people are not here to be your freak show.