“It’s not as easy as you’d think… killing a baby,” says 19-year-old Mark, whose 60-minute monologue shapes Jane Upton’s visceral, uncompromising debut, touring nationally for the first time since earning rave reviews at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Offering a kind of travelogue from hell, Mark drags us through the day-to-day misery of his existence – jobless, friendless, moving from fast food outlet to bedroom to back street via tainted memories of a childhood trip to Skegness – all the while plotting to get rid of his drug-addicted mum’s baby in the hope that its absence will make her life easier.
As a study of an existence teetering on the edge of society, it is bleak in the extreme, but only because it refuses to turn away from the reality of traumatised youth. Joe Doherty’s compelling, nuanced performance provides both pathos and humour (really!), and much of our empathy for the character comes from Doherty’s ability to transmit Mark’s intrinsic naivety, which is a mercy, of sorts, his protection against the true horrors at play. An adult he may be – all macho bluster and street-smarts – but Mark is as trapped in his emotional immaturity as is his mother in her cycle of self-medicating away the pain.
The structure – slipping between Mark’s present and childhood memories – creates a stream-of-consciousness narrative that suggests the causes of Mark’s situation, while exposing the chaos and emptiness of his daily life. Snippets of information about a seaside holiday with his mother and grandfather hint at significant trauma, and he seems not to fully realise the implications of his recollections. He takes off in brutal flights of fancy about ways in which he could kill the baby, but is revealed to be still a child in essence, still desperate to fix adults damaged beyond repair while becoming exactly that himself.
What’s saddest here is the depiction of gender relationships, the paucity of understanding between men and women. Interactions are degrading and toxic, driven by despair and expressed in the language of violence. So unflinching is this piece that at times it seems unrelenting, to the extent that a moment of tenderness veers dangerously close to cliché, but which ultimately serves to make the climax more tragic (and ambiguous).
Bones is utterly convincing in its portrayal of lives blighted by poverty and violence, by damage handed down like some kind of hellish inheritance, and in facing the ugliness head on, it challenges not only its audience but society as a whole.