Ugly Lies the Bone, The National Theatre

Written by American play write Lindsay Ferrentino, Ugly Lies the Bone tells the story of Jess, a war veteran, who has returned from her third tour of Afghanistan with life changing third degree burns.  Moving back to her small hometown Florida, she embarks on two intertwined journeys; that of trying to reintegrate into life as it was and her desperate attempts to relieve the chronic pain caused by her injuries using virtual reality, a technique currently employed in America. 

It is these dual quests that shape the script.  One moment Jess is in the small, perfectly clean kitchen of her childhood home, fan gently whirring, where she tries to understand her new identity; the next she is in a mountainous winter landscape where pines and furs are laden heavy with snow and her body moves free.   This alpine world is created through pioneering virtual reality; Jess puts on goggles and enters an all absorbing winter landscape where snow is feathers.  Her senses are so distracted that her brain is unable to process the excruciating pain that otherwise dominates her every minute.

ugly lies the bone 1

Given the fairly bleak subject matter, the play is surprisingly funny.  The humour – mainly sardonic and brittle from Jess, goofy and bumbling from old flame Stevie (Ralf Little) and sister Casey’s useless boyfriend Kelvin (Kris Marshall) – belies the deep, complex well of emotions that lie beneath.  These escape in rare moments of tenderness, Jess lying on the sofa with her sister and teasing her about her hairy feet – ‘they look like hobbit feet’ – being a notable example. 

The size and curvature of the set and the use of graphics to create both the VR world and that of the Space Coast was dazzling, providing a sensational backdrop for the plot to enfold against.  Although the characters felt a little two-dimensional at times, the acting and humour carried them through with solid performances from the baffonish men and desperately positive Casey.  Kate Fleetwood’s physical performance was convincing, with some moments genuinely painful to watch – Jess’ attempt at changing into a dress was particularly memorable. 

There was, however, something about Jess that felt unconvincing as a character.  As the play went on we learnt she used to love twirling in big skirted sun dresses, taught children in kintergarden and had gorgeously long hair.  That she should then do three tours of Afghanistan as a gunner, where it was her role to separate dead bodies, seemed to require rather a large leap.  This is not to say you can’t be overtly feminine and also a kick-ass soldier, of course, but that in the case of Jess her former self didn’t ring true. 

The play had a myriad of themes – identity, family, past hurts and present wounds – but none of these carried through the play with enough strength. They were all palpable and present, but mainly unexplored, half explored at best; I left without a clear sense of what it was trying to be.  It felt a little like the space shuttle launch Jess watched with Stevie from her rooftop; but unlike the rocket, however, the play never quite reached lift off. 

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