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Bones, Tristan Bates Theatre

Jane Upton
Directed by Angharad Jones & Laura Ford
★★★★

Pros: An excellent performance and script complimented by a well-designed set.

Cons: The fast-paced script was occasionally hard-to-follow, and the subject matter is not for the faint hearted.

Our Verdict: A disturbing but overwhelmingly engrossing and worthwhile production.

Courtesy of Fifth Word

If you’ve ever seen a grisly car accident on the side of the road but been guiltily unable to peel your eyes away, prepare for a similar experience when viewing Jane Upton’s dark and gritty one-man work, Bones. Don’t get me wrong, the production quality and performance are exquisite, and the show is not one to miss, but it’s definitely a gut-wrenching, uncomfortable kind of captivating, so don’t be expecting to leave the theatre with a warm and cozy sensation. You’ll be sure to think back on the events of the piece days later with a shudder.

We are immediately thrust into the messy web of the play’s subject: “It’s not as easy as you’d think, killing a baby”, is Mark’s (Joe Doherty) greeting to the audience as the play begins. With an opening like that, you can’t expect to be heading anywhere but disaster. From the startling opening moments of Mark’s life story to the shocking end, Doherty’s intense and convicted performance utterly captivates the audience’s focus, eliciting both sympathy and disgust throughout. He is well-guided by new playwright Jane Upton, who has mastered a sense of suspense in her storytelling and utilizes incredible skill in combining street language with lyricism.

The set is drab and menacing – gray, fenced, cold, and quite empty, recreating the atmosphere Mark suggests fills his impoverished and miserable lifestyle. Bleak lighting and eerie music add to the suspense as we wait on the edge of our seats to uncover the fate of Mark, his sickly baby sister, and his destitute mother.

Doherty’s Mark uses the audience both as confidant and jury – you get the feeling through his often defensive manner that he expects judgment as he unveils the events that lead up to his desire to rid himself and his mother of her infant daughter. Doherty aptly expresses Mark’s desperation to get rid of the emotional trauma that has dogged him since childhood of his chest, to experience acceptance and transcendence beyond the cycle of abuse, neglect, and poverty which have trapped and destroyed him and his mother.

Most of the production sees Mark perched on a nightstand sipping a Red Bull, circling his sister’s empty crib anxiously, or standing centre-stage before us, urging us to understand his predicament. The simple blocking and single actor might, in less skilled hands, have bored an audience, but instead it provides intensity and focus, and allows us to witness a physicalisation of Mark’s psychology.

I don’t want to give too much away about the sequence of events which Mark lays out for us – the suspense and puzzle of the scenario are an integral part of the experience of the production. I will say that at times the script jumped between past and present so quickly that it took my mind valuable time in the short production to catch up and regain my bearings in the ever-snowballing mess Mark is embroiled in. While it’s quite possibly intentional, the lack of clarity in the script caused problems at times, and I left the theatre slightly confused and desiring a lot of answers that I didn’t receive. However, Bones, is clearly not meant to be about simple solutions or clear conclusions, but rather it intends to explore the experience and psyche of an angry teenager caught in a hopeless mess.

It is truly Doherty’s stunning and brave portrayal of Upton’s complex situation that makes this play a must see. Distressing though it is, Bones is an excellent piece of theatre and one worth the pain if you’ve got the chance to catch it.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Bones has completed its 2012 tour, but you can keep up to date on future opportunities to view the production at http://fifthword.co.uk/projects/bones-by-jane-upton/

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