Monday, 13 March 2017

Theatre review: Ugly Lies the Bone

Lindsey Ferrentino's Ugly Lies the Bone is a play for only five actors - one of whom stays offstage almost throughout - looking at a domestic situation. There's a reason it's landed on the big Lyttelton stage at the National though, and that's because it also encompasses a much larger world, albeit a virtual one. Jess (Kate Fleetwood) has returned from her third tour in Afghanistan after getting caught in an IED explosion, with horrific burns that cover half her face and much of her body. She's in constant pain and coming back to where she grew up doesn't even have the comfort of familiarity: Her Florida town's economy was based around space shuttle launches, but with NASA ending the programme the town has dried up, jobs are scarce and it's becoming a ghost town. Her mother is now in a nursing home with dementia, and Jess refuses to visit her because she's afraid she won't recognise her.

Jess' sister Kacie (Olivia Darney) struggles to remain supportive as Jess' recovery is slower than hoped for, and she seems determined to prove that Kacey's new boyfriend Kelvin (Kris Marshall) is up to something.

One person who seems able to briefly distract her from her physical pain and PTSD is her ex-boyfriend Stevie (Ralf Little,) now married to someone else and awkwardly trying to negotiate the return, very much changed, of someone he still cares about. The play is very much the intimate story of Jess trying to adjust to life again, and her friends and family trying to adjust to how she's changed, but where the resources of the Lyttelton come in is in the experimental new treatment (based on real, apparently very successful projects involving injured servicemen and women) of Jess' pain: Guided by the Voice (Buffy Davis) of a computer programmer, Jess puts on a virtual reality helmet and explores a snowy landscape of her own design.

The production takes place inside a curved grey set by Es Devlin out of which the buildings of the Florida town stick out (it looks a bit like an inverted Death Star,) with Luke Halls' projections bringing the town to life; except when we're inside Jess' VR helmet with her, and a world of pixels turns real for her to walk around the mountains. The fact that both the real town and the VR world are created in the same way touches on the idea that the place she remembered is in part a fiction as well, and while the scope of the play itself and the staging remain a bit at odds (it's easy to imagine this done in a small theatre with zero special effects, the VR world simply described by Jess,) Indhu Rubasingham does a good job of marrying the disparate elements in a production strong on visuals - not just the computer-generated kind, but a scene between Jess and Stevie watching the last-ever shuttle launch on the roof is nicely done on a platform suspended from the flies.

But this is ultimately a personal story so it needs strong performances, playing a collection of essentially decent people, led well by Fleetwood whose Jess moves robotically, reminding us that moving her joints too much only exacerbates her constant pain - and contrasting this with the freedom she feels in the VR world. Particularly good are her scenes with Little, who as Stevie has a relaxed everyman quality that seizes up whenever he remembers who he's with, and that he has to be careful not to hurt her in one sense or another. The furniture sliding down from the sides of the set was a bit of a risk that works better than it might have done but still looks a bit unintentionally comically wobbly at times. The play as a whole still feels a bit disconnected from the scale of the production but overall the job of putting an intimate play on a stage that's anything but has come off pretty well.

Ugly Lies the Bone by Lindsey Ferrentino is booking in repertory until the 8th of June at the National Theatre's Lyttelton.

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Mark Douet.

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