Ugly Lies the Bone

It's great to see new writing being performed at one of the National's bigger spaces and there are big themes at play here in writer Lindsey Ferrentino's National Theatre and UK debut. The horrors of war but the void left to fill without it. The impact of space travel on the smallest details of lives. Pioneering technology at the forefront of medicine to deal with physical and emotional damage. The quest for happiness and peace. They're all covered here in a mere 90 minutes. And yet even with these huge and intriguing topics unfolding on such a vast stage somehow Ugly Lies the Bone manages still to feel very very small – both in terms of its impact and its originality.

For something so hooked in modernity, the whole thing feels terribly old-fashioned.

At the centre of the tale is Jess – returned from her third tour of Afghanistan disfigured and in excruciating pain after an IED explosion. She yearns for a return to the normality of the past where she lived in the heart of Florida’s Space Coast, watching shuttles take flight. But when faced with the mundanity of those she left behind – the ex boyfriend who works in a service station and just wants someone to “watch something funny on the telly with” and the sister (and new ‘unsuitable’ benefit cheating boyfriend) – it becomes clear that the past she hankers for doesn’t exist any more, and what’s left of it just isn’t enough. It’s that well-worn dichotomy – she’s forgotten she left to fight in order to make more of her life and now she doesn’t know whether to move forward or backwards; undoubtedly a real-life issue for many – just one that’s been done to death and has little more to offer here.

The point of difference is in the virtual reality world that is created around her during her course of what is real and innovative treatment for pain. Guided by the offstage voice, she spends much of this time lost in the middle of the stage, being encouraged to build a world of snow and mountains and fresh air where her avatar can roam freely and – for a short time at least – take her mind away from her pain. Luke Halls’ video design here is truly impressive, creating huge scapes that cover the crater like background of the stage around her as she runs, jumps and flies through the snow. It’s stunning to watch – and if you have time, there is a version of the real VR technology you can try for yourself afterwards in the Lyttleton lounge – but it’s stunning in the way that an advert for the tech would be rather than anything deeper.

It seems harsh to be critical of a story obviously based on real experiences and traumas faced – but it’s just all so mundane, difficult to care about and offers little more than unsurprising cliché. As she goes back and forth between the reality and the virtual – with a possible blurring of which is which – the characters feel tick-box (the sick mother, the bubbly sister, the dissatisfied ex she still loves), the script clunky (when asked if she wants to hear Paul Simon in the VR world she retorts “Don’t I look like I’ve suffered enough” – you can almost where the canned laughter should come in) and the real sets (as opposed to the VR) are plonked on and off as needed, making no use of the space or the depth that the stage offers. It makes one wonder if this wouldn’t have had a better home in the more intimate Dorfman.

Kate Fleetwood does a fair job of trying to mask the pain that Jess lives with at all times in elaborate make-up that, whilst fairly realistic, also masks any subtlety of emotion that may show on her face. There’s lots of soft moaning as she struggles to move around and she shows an unease when the shuttle’s engine goes off or a lighter is lit – for obvious reasons, she isn’t comfortable around fire – but it seems like she’s just showing more than feeling. The cast around her do their best but also seem to have words to say rather than any unique characterisation to embody. For something so hooked in modernity, the whole thing feels terribly old-fashioned. 

Reviews by Simon Smith

Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★
Olivier Theatre

Translations

★★
Dorfman Theatre

Nine Night

★★★
The Royal Court Theatre

The Prudes

★★★
Royal Court Theatre

Instructions for Correct Assembly

★★★★
National Theatre

Macbeth

★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

‘Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone; beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.’

After three tours in Afghanistan, Jess finally returns to Florida. In a small town on the Space Coast, as the final shuttle is about to launch, Jess must confront her scars – and a home that may have changed even more than her.

Experimenting with a pioneering virtual reality therapy, she builds a breathtaking new world where she can escape her pain. There, she begins to restore her relationships, her life and, slowly, herself.