Following a successful run at Edinburgh last year, Joe Doherty reprises his role as Mark in this first play by Jane Upton. Bones is a gripping narrative, delivered in an hour-long monologue, packed with detail. Twenty-something Mark lives on benefits with his smacked up mum and – a recent addition to the dysfunctional, incestuous family scene – a baby. We're not exactly sure where the baby has come from, but the play opens with Mark violently describing how he would like to go about killing it.
Bones is bleak from the outset and, if it's possible to get bleaker than infanticidal fantasies, gets bleaker still as Mark tells us about some of the darkest moments of his childhood, returning to the problem of the unwanted baby throughout a series of recollections that spans years. Structurally, it is nicely crafted, moving between present day Nottingham and Mark's eight-year-old self struggling to cope with his suicidal mother and predatory grandfather at a holiday resort in Skegness. It is a shame, though, that there is no real differentiation between these two scenes; the eight year old thinks, feels and speaks the same as the older Mark.
The play is broken almost into verses, with flickering images projected onto a screen accompanied by short bursts of music, while Mark has a sip of Red Bull before launching into the next part of the story. There are enough vivid descriptions and peripheral characters conjured up to sustain the stream of consciousness and to stop it from lapsing into a barrage of solipsism (something that's definitely worth commending – monologues are hard), but Laura Ford and Angharad Jones's direction does little to help the piece. The images are too vague either to inform us or to create atmosphere. Joe Doherty is left somewhat stranded, with his can of drink and an empty cradle with an imaginary baby in it. Despite this, he manages well. I liked his Nottingham accent and he was certainly bold, though it is a shame that he is so very over-wrought throughout – an hour's worth of high-octane performance is draining.
While Bones is an ambitious play that deals with incest, sexual abuse, substance abuse and youth unemployment, set in an all-things-gritty world of prostitutes, fag phlegm and trips to the job centre, the vision of deprivation (and depravity) is rather by the book. There isn't the emotional range to support such heavy subject matter. I recently saw Jack Thorne's play Stacy, which handles some of the same themes as Bones, also in the form of a one man show; both are monologues delivered by damaged characters. The difference is that Thorne depicts the psychological subtleties of abuse, through images and subtexts. Bones attempts something similar but the results are rather obvious – there are no dark, damp cavities here, it's all brickwork.
But it is hardly fair to compare a writer completely new to writing for the stage with an old hand. There is plenty that's good in Upton's play, and Mark's voice is certainly strong. I just feel that this was perhaps the wrong character to focus on for a first play. There is a great deal of imaginative potential here and hopefully in Upton's next play, a very personal project called Finding Nana, we will hear more of her own voice. I would certainly be interested to see what she does next.