Burying your brother in the pavement by Jack Thornes
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
Each issue of D&T we bring you a page-to-stage focus on a play for performance with your students. This issue, former artistic director and experienced head of drama Keith Burt guides you through Jack Thornes' Burying your brother in the pavement
Burying your brother in the pavement tackles the complex themes of grief, family and sexuality. The play was written by Jack Thornes, who also wrote Skins, Shameless, the script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and most recently the film Enola Holmes. Having made its way through the National Theatre Connections Festival in 2008, it now holds a central place within the canon for challenging plays for young people, youth theatres and schools.
With a mix of carefully crafted characters, settings and contexts, this play challenges the audience to rethink their relationships with those closest to them. Do we know people as we say we do? Should we get to know them more? When someone says they are fine, do they really mean that? Do we make the space for those closest to us to speak openly, truthfully and confidently?
The play is structured around the central character, Tom, who is grieving for his dead brother, Luke, who was killed on the streets of the crime-ridden and dodgy Tunstall Estate. We first meet Tom hiding in an attic, an attempt to escape the traumatic events of the funeral of his brother, which is taking place in the house below. What follows takes place somewhere between reality and inside the surreal and colourful imagination of Tom as he tries to come to terms with not only the death of his brother, but the truth of his brother's identity. Tom takes up residence living in the exact location where Luke died. As he does so, he meets a series of increasingly wild and unusual characters who help him with his plan to bury his brother in the middle of the estate, at the location he died.
That is until he meets a character called Tight, who returns again and again to help Tom discover the truth behind his brother's death and help Tom emerge from the grief-fuelled alternate world he has been occupying. In a fantastic plot twist at the end of the play, we discover that not only was Luke gay, but he committed suicide from an outdated sense of shame brought on by his fear to face that truth about himself.
Written in 2008, these contexts might seem out of date today, but they are still so very relevant. It was only in 2008 that it became illegal to encourage homophobic hatred and in 2013 when gay marriage was made legal across the United Kingdom. The actions that the character Luke takes are no less frequent, serious or impactful now than they were in 2008.
For students of today, the fantastic advances made in society towards acceptance not just of gay rights, but of LGBT rights, are not necessarily mirrored in the lives and homes of individual people. The relationship Luke had with his family, and with his brother Tom, made him feel that he couldn't share with them that he was gay. For Tom, this is devastating.
Room for character development
The characters are fantastic and offer a great challenge to young people. The character of Tom is rooted within a naturalistic style of performance. There is a lot of opportunity for character development here, to get into the mind frame of the character and understand them. It is a challenging role, but one that is fulfilling and exciting to perform. There are several intense monologues that show the perilous balance between Tom's imagination and reality. There are also some fantastic, colourful and imaginative characters who exist within Tom's imagination, such as Pushchair Mum, Underwear Man and Drunk Bill. They are based in reality but are extended and blurred by Tom's imagination.
The number of characters is large, but Jack Thorne is keen to point out in the production notes that the cast can be as large or as small as you need it to be. There is plenty of opportunity to multi-role and none of the roles except the main four characters are gender specific. Indeed, Thornes also points out that if you happen to have a brilliant rollerblader in your cast who can add a triple-Lutz somersault into your production, then do so!
Thornes is also keen that the production should be full of life, slightly scruffy and edgy. It isn't designed to be overcomplicated. You are encouraged to use the music you like as a score, to use what set design, lighting and costume you have available and to use whatever space, including the auditorium, to perform in.
It is a play that doesn't hold back. For the central character, the only place to hide from the truth is to find a place within his own mind to exist in. For the audience, there is no place to hide. It will make you feel uncomfortable. It will also make you laugh, cry and feel every emotion between those two states!
Burying your brother in the pavement is published by Nick Hern Books.