Review by Sam Waite
Mental health has become a more prevalent talking point than ever before in recent years, thanks to an array of unprecedented times, and an increase in our collective knowledge of the issue. A major element of recent discussions, and the major influence behind Lewis Aaron Wood’s new play Bones – presented by Redefine and LooseHeadz in its world premiere at the Park Theatre – is the combination of mental illness and toxic masculinity making men less likely to seek out or offer up help.
Partly a drama set in the world of sport, with the central characters playing on a local rugby team, and partly a piece of physical theatre, Bones represents the increasingly fractured emotional state of star player Ed through periodic movement pieces. With first-time director Daniel Blake also acting as movement director, the show opens with one such piece – a shocking, highly physical display of the physical, forceful nature of the game which doubles as a metaphor and a literal game, with the first scene following Ed winning them the match.
Ed bows out from a pub trip with the whole team but is pestered into a quieter drink with long-time friends Charlie and Will. As Ed spends more time with this classic odd-couple and we see his increasingly laboured interactions with his dad and fellow players, it becomes increasingly apparent that something more than the “niggle in my shoulder” he excuses himself with is affecting him. Having not long before lost his mother, Ed seems to have bounced back immediately, but is now disinterested in his sport and aimless in his life – soon enough, his friends grow concerned.
The emotional, occasionally saccharine moments of brotherly affection later in the piece still make a strong impact, particularly paired alongside the displays of raw physicality. Blake has choreographed exciting and periodically frightening pieces of work which could tell the story by themselves if the creators had been so inclined – actors are thrown in the air and slammed into the ground, balls are kicked towards the audience before being caught, and a large training pad is crashed into in countless ways from innumerable angles. Despite the bombast in these sequences, Blake has made every movement count, and keeps it crystal clear what type and intensity of emotion is being felt.
Ed’s father, physiotherapist, doctor, teammate Ollie (and potentially other sportsman) are all portrayed by James Mackay. While this tends to keep him away from the emotional peaks and valleys of the story, it allows his affable, easy presence on stage more time to shine. Where he brings an assured, calming quality to his brief time as a doctor, he carries real weight and a deep sadness when portraying Ed’s widowed, unsure father. Playing the smaller roles, Mackay is also able to provide brief moments of humour, including a funny reference to boyish shenanigans early on when he enters in a speedo with “budgie smuggler” across the rear, openly questioning which fellow player has stolen his clothes.
Samuel Hoult and Ainsley Fannen, as old friends Charlie and Will, play off each other well, and really sell the longstanding friendship between these two young men who seem to be in constant irritation with one another. Loyal, more openly concern Charlie is played by Hoult as determined to help and progressively more dismayed at not being able to do so, to the point of a real, palpable aggression against Ed towards the play’s climax. Meanwhile, Fannen brings humour and eventually heart to Will, the braggadocious but painfully insecure man who knows, when it comes to it, when to stop the foolishness and be there for a friend. Crucially, as their positions on Ed’s struggles seem to switch, neither actor makes the change too swiftly or too out of character that it loses believability.
Ronan Cullen has the difficult task of making Ed not only a believably competent rugby player, but also a young man who is struggling with things he himself does not understand and is finding it suddenly difficult to hide this pain. Measured, understated, and aware of how subtle the signs of mental illness can be, Cullen keeps the emotions of the role on a short leash, allowing for a much greater impact when he eventually gives into them and allows them to take hold more fully. As leader of this small ensemble, Cullen is as key to Bones’ success on stage as Ed is to his team’s success on the rugby pitch.
Lewis Aaron Wood’s script can, as I mentioned, lean into a sickliness towards the end that threatens to unmoor the depth of the piece – thankfully, these are only fleeting moments, and the bulk of the work is rawer and more direct in its approach to the subject matter. The laddish banter between Charlie and Will, in particular, is easy to believe as a real, lived in relationship because Wood allows his characters to interact the way real people do. When writing his protagonist, Wood steers clear of grand soliloquies or brazen announcements of feeling, instead realising how isolated and trapped a person in this position begins to feel.
Sound design from Eliza Willmott, also known as a performing musician under the name Azileli, brings the overwhelming nature of the emotions represented to life fully during the movement sequences. Ed shouts his dialogue during these moments, partly because of the urgency and energy of the games he is narrating, but also because Willmott overloads the scenes with music. At first it can be irritating that you can’t quite catch what Cullen is saying, but eventually I came to realise that may well be the point.
Equally as strong with the more traditional scenes as he is with the movement pieces, Blake employs a light hand to guide his actors through the script. Clearly aware of the power and impact that Wood’s work will carry, Blake allows the story room to breathe, not cluttering the scenes with unnecessary movements. Thankfully, he avoids having the four actors constantly leave and re-enter the space by employing the corners of the space, having actors seat themselves to the sides until their next entrance, and keeping the small handful of props in these same spaces for quick turnaround in the intimate 90-seat venue.
An insightful, intelligent piece of work about the kind of people we don’t tend to associate with mental health struggles, Bones is a strong piece of theatre – sharply written by Wood and presented with a near-perfect execution by Blake. Coupled with a quartet of believable, textured performances, this show ought to have a bright future, and I would urge anyone to check out this first run to see how strong an impression new theatre can make.
Bones plays at the Park Theatre until July 22nd.
For tickets and information visit https://parktheatre.co.uk/whats-on/bones
Photos by Charles Flint