Ugly Lies the Bone at the National Theatre
Returning home as an adult can be difficult at the best of times, let alone when one is coming back from a life-altering third tour of Afghanistan. Lindsey Ferrentino’s Ugly Lies the Bone marries this narrative with an exploration of pioneering virtual reality therapy, where veteran Jess can briefly escape the pain that plagues her real-world existence.
Wearing heavy prosthetic make-up and walking with a stiff, agonising gait, Kate Fleetwood translates Jess’s pain into an acerbic shell that, when cracked, reveals the depth of the former soldier’s own self-doubt. Yet there is something too heightened about her portrayal; it is an actor ticking all the boxes of a role that, if it were on screen, would be labelled awards-bait.
It doesn’t help that Ferrentino prioritises her leading character’s physical rather than mental pain. There is only one significant instance where Jess’s PTSD appears, and it is easily the play’s most distressing moment: as she watches a shuttle launch with her ex-boyfriend she is transported back to Afghanistan, the set enveloped in the screeching imagery of modern tactical warfare. However, the lack of real onstage consequence to this attack makes it feel like a tokenistic gesture towards something more complex.
The narrative focus is so firmly on Jess that the characters around the periphery are inevitably underdeveloped. Nevertheless, Ralf Little’s dopey old flame Stevie gets some great scenes with Fleetwood – notably their tender and honest rooftop conversation – while as Kelvin Kris Marshall brings the same burn-out charm he was known for in My Family.
The real star of the show is Es Devlin’s craterous set, resembling both a model town and the surface of the moon. It reinforces the blandness of the Space Coast suburb while emphasising just how lost Jess is back home. It also produces a few images of breathtaking beauty, the VR display merging with a more practical kind of stagecraft to create an emotionally frazzled snow storm. Director Indhu Rubasingham juxtaposes these virtual experiences with Jess’s everyday life, the latter visually encroaching on the former to provide a gaudy reminder of what lies beyond the VR headset.
Like The Red Barn in the same theatre last year, Ugly Lies the Bone is a stellar feat of production in search of meatier material. The play is basically the theatrical equivalent of the indie dramedies that populate film festivals like Sundance, with all the quirky charm and lack of substance (despite the subject matter) that comes with the territory. It arguably would have worked much better in the Dorfman, where the slight down-scaling could have generated a greater sense of intimacy.
Photo: Mark Douet
Ugly Lies the Bone is at the National Theatre from 22nd February until 6th June 2017, for further information or to book visit here.