Review: Ugly Lies The Bone, National Theatre

“It took three surgeries to give me back my eyelid”

There’s a moment to catch the breath in the opening scene of Lindsey Ferrentino’s Ugly Lies The Bone as Kate Fleetwood’s Jess removes the virtual reality helmet she’s been wearing to reveal substantial scarring across half her face (excellent prosthetic work from the creative team). Jess is a veteran of three tours of Afghanistan, the last cut short by a close encounter with an IED that ravaged her body, whose recovery process after fourteen months in a hospital bed is not necessarily being aided by a return home to the depressed Florida town where she grew up.

What is proving effective is a pioneering form of virtual reality-based therapy (based on real life) that is designed to help Jess manage the constant pain that her injuries cause. In a custom computer-generated world, she is liberated, if only momentarily from excruciating skin grafts and flashbacks and an understandable heaviness of spirit that claws its way back to the surface as soon as the helmet comes off. For in the real world, the end of NASA’s shuttle programme has left Titusville a shadow of the place it once was, making it even harder to reconnect with the sister and ex-lover she finds there.

Though there’s real truth in the struggles of readjusting to small-town living no matter your circumstances, Ferrentino doesn’t quite mine deep enough into this mundaneness to say anything. Olivia Darnley’s faithful sister, Kris Marshall as her layabout boyfriend and Ralf Little as the ex are all given too little to work with to make them more than just cyphers, something Indhu Rubasingham’s production can’t rectify for all its charismatic casting. But in Fleetwood, it has the kind of hypnotically magnificent performance that almost makes you forgive any or all shortcomings.

She demonstrates an extraordinary physicality that seems to thoroughly inhabit the character’s never-ending pain and accompanies it with a nuanced emotional palette that is highly engaging. Es Devlin’s ingeniously conceived design houses the perfect canvas for the all-encompassing sweep of Luke Halls’ virtual landscapes which are truly impressive but dramatically under-explored (the programme is full of much more illuminating insights about VR as pain relief), symptomatic of a play that could go deeper into its wider issues to match the quality of its central character.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Marc Douet
Booking until 6th June

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