Review - Ugly Lies The Bone (National Theatre)

Titusville, Florida, aka 'Space City USA' is such a vital element to Ugly Lies The Bone that it could almost be considered a character itself. The history of the city is integral to Lindsey Ferrentino's new play, and serves as a harsh contrast to the idyllic virtual paradise which protagonist Jess retreats into upon her return from a third tour of Afghanistan, as part of her recovery, after being severely injured by an IED.

Ralf Little and Kate Fleetwood in Ugly Lies The Bone
Photo credit - Mark Douet
For the last 50 or so years the city of Titusville has been inextricably linked to the NASA space programme, booming when NASA had missions on the go, and crashing every time the government cut its funding. Ugly Lies The Bones sees Jess returning to Florida in the summer of 2011, just as NASA is preparing to launch its final shuttle. The shops and restaurants are unfamiliar, unemployment is high, and on the verge of getting even worse, Jess' mom is suffering with Alzheimer's and her ex boyfriend is married to someone else. While Jess, who spent over a year recovering from severe burns in a hospital in Texas, and must walk with a metal walking frame due to the tightness of her scarred and grafted skin, is desperate to cling to the past, everything and everyone around her is moving on. 

Thus Ugly Lies The Bone, an excruciating examination of the ways in which humans deal with pain and trauma, begins. Jess escapes her mundane, unfamiliar Floridian lifestyle by entering a virtual reality based on the very real SnowWorld VR system, a pain reduction technique used to distract burn victims while their bandages are being changed, which has been proven in some tests to be more effective than Morphine. The VR becomes a necessity to Jess and her rehabilitation, and to emphasise its importance designer Es Devlin has moulder the stage into a large, grey quarter sphere, reminiscent of a giant VR visor. When Jess enters her virtual reality, her world is mapped out onto the set, with impressive projections by Luke Halls. The visuals of Ugly Lies The Bone are among the production's most impressive features! 

The play is also impeccably cast, with Kate Fleetwood giving a fierce performance in the role of Jess. She's at her most impressive when she stands alone on stage, exploring her virtual world or getting to grips with her physical one. One particularly devastating scene sees Jess strip off to her underclothes and pull on a dress as she prepares to spend with her ex boyfriend Stevie (Ralf Little is endearingly flappable in the role) watching a shuttle launch. The scene is agonisingly drawn out, and Fleetwood's stiff, restricted movements, combined with her minuscule hums of agony, make it almost unbearable to watch. Meanwhile Kris Marshall is hilarious as Jess' sister Kacie's seemingly classless, yet underestimated boyfriend, and Kacie herself is brought to bubbly life by Olivia Darnley. 

It's a shame in a way that while the play spends a lot of time exploring its characters and their interpersonal relationships, it still feels like there's more probing to be done by the end. The exquisitely complex dynamic between Jess and Stevie is fascinating, but feels unfulfilled. There are too many compelling plotlines crammed into the 90 minute run time, and as such some of the raw and emotional elements teased at end up a little bit tame. Nevertheless though, Ugly Lies The Bone is a remarkable visual affair, and Kate Fleetwood's stunning occupation of Jess deserves much adulation. 

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