Review: UGLY LIES THE BONE, National Theatre

By: Mar. 02, 2017
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Jess strolls through fresh powder. Behind her is a gleaming glass lake, ahead snow-capped mountains dotted with handsome fir trees. More snow twinkles in the inky heavens like jewelled stars, or falls from the sky in soft, fluttering feathers.

This is a virtual reality construction, an actual form of therapy used to aid injured veterans through their agonising rehab (in experimental trials, many patients reported more than 30% pain reduction - versus just 25% from morphine). Jess, who suffered third-degree burns thanks to an IED during her third tour of Afghanistan, finds the cool world comforting; when her skin grafts stretch, she feels like she's on fire all over again.

It's a compelling hook for American writer Lindsey Ferrentino's 2015 play, and visitors to the National can experience such a simulation for themselves in the Lyttelton Lounge. But while Jess's chronic pain is reduced by immersion in this fantasy realm, it becomes an increasing source of frustration that her progress here is disconnected with the physical and psychological challenges of readjusting to life in the real world.

The play likewise divides into two: the hallucinatory VR therapy, guided by a godlike voice, and more sitcom-esque visits to Jess's home of Titusville. The setting is a neat reflection of her experience: we're in Florida's 'Space Coast', now an existentially unmoored ghost town thanks to NASA's ending of its shuttle programme, leaving inhabitants jobless, businesses decimated and properties foreclosing.

Jess's foot-in-mouth ex, Stevie - formerly a NASA employee, now a gas station attendant - is the culmination of all our fears that we might say or do the wrong thing in such a situation. "Look at you!" he yelps on first seeing Jess, false cheer exacerbated by the absurd bobbing rocket ship on his orange hat. He's now married, a fact he mentions nervously and repeatedly, but also offers a tempting window into the past.

Kelvin, in contrast, only knows this version of Jess. He's a goateed slacker claiming disability, drawling maddening anecdotes about his relatives and potentially sponging off Jess's big-hearted sister, Kacie. The latter is struggling to readjust to this withdrawn, traumatised version of her sibling - "You love parties!", she protests, using the wrong tense - and suffers the caretaker's fate of never being able to get it right. Taking down a mirror only provokes fury.

There's plenty of welcome humour in what might be a gloomfest (we've also got a mother with Alzheimer's), but the play suffers from tonal lurches not quite reconciled by Indhu Rubasingham's slick production. Jess longs to escape the inane chatter of her family; sometimes we do too.

The tortuous experience of a female veteran with life-changing injuries makes the domestic concerns feel mundane, particularly in such a short piece - a few extra scenes might give the supporting characters equivalent depth and Jess's journey breathing space. There are glimmers of her difficulty in finding a job on her return, but that thread's left dangling, as is the wider question of the army's place in Afghanistan and whether or not Jess's sacrifice was meaningful.

The VR is a fascinating avenue into the ways in which we deceive ourselves or seek to escape - shades of that in Stevie's confused response to Jess's return and feeling of disconnect from his new life. But as both a thematic and theatrical device, other than visual 'glitches' as Jess is triggered, there's too little elision between fantasy and reality.

Yet this is a winningly empathetic piece, anchored by a superb performance from Kate Fleetwood. Though necessarily contained, she's vividly articulate. You can see the continual frustration as Jess tries to move or gesture as she used to, stopped short by the uncontrollable spasms or frozen stiffness of her body - right arm awkwardly bent, leg curled into a limp, head turning in strained, robotic fashion, unable to tilt naturally.

Fleetwood communicates the particular hell of this previously athletic, independent woman trapped in such a state, but also makes her a bracingly relatable human being: she's caustic, sarcastic, mercurial, fiercely unforgiving, judgement just as flawed as the less "heroic" characters. In a brutal sequence, she brokenly hums "Good King Wenceslas" - a link to the snowy relief - while changing clothes, an everyday act transformed into an agonising but teeth-grittingly endured trial.

Olivia Darnley brings chipper sweetness to Kacie, though her toughness is less convincing, while Ralf Little is wonderfully endearing as blundering but well-meaning Stevie and Kris Marshall funny if slightly cartoonish as buffoonish Kelvin (though the one sincere scene he's afforded is nicely played). Buffy Davis is quietly effective in a brief appearance.

Es Devlin provides a vast moon crater-like set, filled with Luke Halls' accomplished if somewhat prosaic projections - the VR snowscape transforms into a bird's-eye view of the town, reflecting Jess's fear that people are insignificant dots in a vast, unfeeling universe. Hard-earned moments of connection offer a warm, sometimes moving counterargument - messy humanity reflected by a play that's similarly heartfelt, if more searching than fully realised.

Ugly Lies the Bone at National Theatre until 6 June

Read our interview with Kate Fleetwood

Photo credit: Mark Douet