BONES at the Park Theatre
“Cullen is excellent as Ed, at once physically strong and heart-wrenchingly vulnerable”
Bones opens in the middle of a rugby match, bodies hurtling across the grassy stage. Actors grapple and slam each other to the floor, centimetres from the audience who are sat thrillingly close in the intimate Park90 space. Ed (Ronan Cullen) describes the thrill of a scrum, and it feels like the front row might be called up to flank the defence.
Bones invites the audience to become one of the lads, as it tackles mental health and masculinity within a rugby club. The plot follows a young man, Ed, who is isolating himself from his close-knit team. His mates, including level-headed Charlie (Samuel Hoult) and the swaggering Will (Ainsley Fannen) grow concerned at his erratic behaviour but struggle to communicate outside of jabbing pub banter. As a crucial match looms, Ed’s interactions with his friends, a doctor and his father suggest a more serious unravelling.
Cullen is excellent as Ed, at once physically strong and heart-wrenchingly vulnerable. James Mackay completes the ensemble, responsible for portraying multiple minor characters who are depicted by adding different shirts over the rugby strip sported by the rest of the cast. The most significant of these is Ed’s father and Mackay and Cullen have a touching, tender closing scene.
Bones makes the most of theatre in the round, with the set a simple square of AstroTurf. The closeness of the audience emphasises the claustrophobia of Ed’s struggles: the proximity means you see every drop of sweat beading on the actors’ faces.
Lighting and two spartan benches are cleverly deployed to move scenes between the rugby field, the pub, and Ed’s house. A rugby ball spewing chalk is utilised creatively through the climax, though I did leave with my trousers spotted with white powder.
The production is from Redefine, a company co-founded by ex-athletes and theatrical movement practitioners. This partnership reaps benefits in affrontingly physical match sequences that illustrate the parallels between Ed’s physical and mental pain. This is the piece’s second outing after a run at the Theatre Peckham in May 2022. It has been extended to 75 minutes and has an updated sound design (Eliza Willmott). Atmospheric synths back intense, acrobatic scenes, though actors occasionally lose the battle to make sure every line is heard.
The writing is worth straining to hear, with Lewis Aaron Wood’s script regularly serving up belly-laugh one-liners, especially for chief jester Will. This character’s transformation is one of the more interesting strands within the play; his early ripostes encroach on bullying territory, though he is the first to learn how to engage with crisis-mode Ed. Fannen deftly navigates this complexity so it does not jar. He delivers one of the most poignant lines: he challenges the generally more sensitive Charlie as to whether Charlie should want to be proven right, or let a contentious point go to support a friend. Moments like this elevate the piece, which sensitively explores the frustrations of engaging with those facing mental health struggles.
The conclusion of Bones may be too sentimental for some, with the optimistic ending avoiding the grittier reality of mental health care available within the UK. However, Redefine have stated their ambition to show recordings of Bones to rugby clubs across the country, where the play’s hopeful message is likely most novel.
There is enough sporting pedigree behind the show to ensure irregular theatre goers should not feel patronised by theatre creeping on their turf, whilst the quality script, strong direction from Redefine co-founder Daniel Blake, and intense physical performances give a thespian crowd plenty to enjoy.
Reviewed on 10th July 2023
by Rosie Thomas
Photography by Charles Flint
Previously reviewed at this venue: