Flesh and Bone at the Soho Theatre: ‘The narrative weaves from territorial stigma into identity crisis’

Cara Doherty reviews Flesh and Bone, a new play set on a housing estate that juxtaposes Shakespearean tone with an everyday vernacular. 

Flesh and Bone, written by Elliot Warren, takes us into the intimate world of an East London housing estate to meet Terrance (Elliot Warren), Kelly (Olivia Brady), Jamal (Alessandro Babalola), Reiss (Michael Jinks) and Grandad (Nick T. Frost). The play looks at the human stories behind the social housing estates in the context of urban regeneration. With a topic so pertinent in London today, the play succeeds in focusing on the intimate narratives on the lives of these individuals who call these estates home, rather than strictly focusing on the housing-dispossession story. Through the narratives, set design and acting, the play effectively digs beneath the surface of these individuals to reveal their fragility and inner struggles. It is through the effective scripting, acting and at times near-dance choreography that we are taken on an intimate exploration of those whom we may, initially, blanketly stereotype. Both in its narrative and delivery, a recurrent theme of contrasts is adopted: we move from a position of judgment and antagonism towards an underlining empathy towards their plights. These are stories that we can both relate to and apply once we step outside of the theatre, begging the question if we are all that different in our personal identities.

The start and end of the play is present in aggression, social defiance, and codified community camaraderie that we are initially not party to, but rather stand in antagonism with this group. We are introduced to Terrance – the tough estate lad – and his brother Reiss, Jamal, Grandad, and, critically, Kelly who is also Terrance’s partner and the only female character in the play whose femininity contrasts to a world of outward ‘toughness’. As the audience, we feel initially confronted, and like prying eyes into their world we almost feel like the developers tapping on their door. But soon their doors open, and we meet all characters in their rawness. The early scenes at the pub – where Terrance struggles to pay for a drink with ‘scampi and chips’, where a glass is thrown and a brawl entails – seeks to affirm our expectations of life on the estate. This is quickly flipped as the plot progresses through each character’s inner battles with identity, success, and the feeling of being trapped by both the social and physical ecosystem of life on the estate.

The Cast of Flesh and Bone. Photograph: Owen Baker

There are many poignant narratives presented throughout the play, and one of the most resonate is that of Jamal’s job experience.  Jamal recounts a story where he is consistently rejected on job offers that will advance in career, purely based on his residential address. The tragedy compounds where we learn that his honest ambition becomes truncated by the perceptions set by others. Thus, such results in a path of petty crime and drug dealing form an alternative, but expected, ‘approved’ career path, in which Jamal feels ‘imprisoned’ by his physical address and perceived social class. The narrative weaves from territorial stigma into identity crisis. The only female character, Kelly, equally faces internal battles. Kelly’s strong ambition is often cut short by the triviality she recounts of her days on the estate, yet her insistent perusal of her singing career becomes symbolic of her equal ambition to be perceived beyond the stereotypical female on the estate as home keeper and seeks to represent a wider story of the hidden ambitions of many similar residents who live on the estate.  

The contrasts between the presented and internal identities of these characters in reinforced in the script’s content and tone, and further by its delivery. Verbally, the play juxtaposes Shakespearean-like tone and rhythm with the bluntness of everyday estate vernacular. Thematically, the scripting toggles between salient reflections, with moments of humour. The play deals with a politically laden theme and the risk of inciting further stigma upon these residents and communities is strong. However, the actor’s ability to show humanity and humour transcends and dispels such risks, and the skilful adoption of verbal tone, engagement with the audience, and mime, all seek to add complexity and sincere believability towards these characters.

The set is kept intentionally barren. The blackened room and use of simple but focused lighting succeeds in allowing a focus on the individual’s battles. Given the nature of the individual reflections, the interior of these emotions almost beg such simplicity as they become increasingly abstracted from their immediate surrounds, and more fundamentally complex. Moreover, the lack of prescribed stage set enables the viewer to visualise their own vision of what the estate looks like, and thus suggests our own preconceived vision of these estates. Complimenting the set design, the costumes are kept simple, playing a secondary role to the actors. The costumes are mainly sports attire, track suits and leggings, and plays into what we envisage – and potentially expect – of housing estate residents to wear. It is through the conviction of their narratives that we rely less and less on their clothing to signify their class, expected social place, and their actions.

It is at the most intimate moment of Terrance becoming a father, acknowledging his fear of fatherhood and ability to share ‘life lessons’ with his newborn child, that we are hit with bright lights and the sounds of machinery. The narrative of dispossession’s ‘de-cantering’, which has become synonymous with urban regeneration, only emerges in the last scene and is the ultimate contrast in Flesh and Bone’s journey. When the group reassembles on the stage, in defiance of the wrecking ball, it is in a physical grouping that is not unlike the opening scene. Yet, poignantly, we no longer feel in antagonism and threatened by their presence, but instead we are drawn united into their plight. An outcome, much like the internal battles of the individuals, which we will never know.


Flesh and Bone is at the Soho Theatre until the 21st July, 2018.

Feature photograph: Owen Baker.

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