Kids sometimes play a drinking game called “mystery drink,” in which the loser has to swallow a concoction of unpleasant household items that has been prepared by the winners. Imagine a pint glass heaped with vodka, rancid cider, spaghetti hoops, coco pops, detergent, and shampoo. Fifth Word’s new play “Bones,” a one-man show written by Jane Upton and starring Joe Doherty, is itself a sort of mystery drink, a mixture of homely but deeply pungent flavours. The nineteen year old Mark shares his world of infanticide, incest, sly paedophilia, squalid prostitution and hopeless thuggery, and we down it to the dregs.
The most hilarious thing about this play was that the regime at Pleasance Zoo accidentally admitted a family – a dad, a mum, and their wee boy. They chose the front row, they were sprayed with a fair few more “fucks” than I imagine they get from Horrid Henry, and they sat through Mark’s colourful musings about simulating cot death in his baby sister. The mum left first, but she had to come back and retrieve the other two. The boy looked most unhappy to be dragged out of what must have been quite an education.
“Bones” has the appearance of pure, stark realism, but its reality is a little too extravagant. The play and audience have implicitly conspired to appoint Mark as an ambassador of faraway housing estates and feral youth, and his sexually untidy and emotionally incontinent life renders him somebody who is fundamentally not like ourselves. “Bones” makes us feel like observers or scientists, who have much to learn during our rare opportunity to examine this unusual specimen. You may think it unreasonable to assume that theatre audiences are by definition suburban, but a suburban perspective invariably comes with the seat.
Yet there is efficient and often entertaining storytelling here. It takes a while to become accustomed to Mark’s voice – vaguely Mancunian with a jaunty Jamaican twang – but once we are familiar with Mark, he seems like a nice guy and all of his depravity comes across as weakness or merely a sort of stupidity. His family’s actions probably involved the same hapless bungling. In real life, somebody in Mark’s shoes would be deranged and menacing and out of control, and he would lack the means of telling such a sophisticated story.