Review: Ugly Lies the Bone (Lyttelton, National Theatre)

Lindsey Ferrentino’s play is about a soldier who returns home and experiments virtual reality

Jess is returning home to Florida from her third tour of Afghanistan. An explosion has left her with horrendous burns across her face and body. Kate Fleetwood‘s controlled performance, jerky as the Tin Man, is appropriately painful to watch; I found my own limbs stiffening as she winces around the stage in Lindsey Ferrentino‘s play, first seen off-Broadway in 2015.

Jess’s mother suffers dementia and is in an old people’s home, but her ray o’ sunshine sister Kacie (an excellent Olivia Darnley, suggesting much behind a bubbly façade) is on hand to help, as is her positivity-spouting chump of a new boyfriend, Kelvin (Kris Marshall, gurning for gold). Jess also reconnects with her ex, with Ralf Little playing Stevie with just the right mix of panic and puppyish enthusiasm. Inarticulate, banal, kinda cowardly, these three nonetheless have a brimming all-American optimism.

Understandably, Jess isn’t so cheery. Enduring her chronic pain, she’s defensive and suspicious. Loud noises can trigger delusions she’s still in combat. She’s depressed by the decline of her home town: as NASA’s shuttle testing programme winds up, other businesses also close down. Jess wants to go back to how things were before, but her home is as changed as she is.

A new form of therapy seems to offer relief: virtual reality. Another perky voice, that of the VR designer, promises to create Jess’s "eden", a fantasy world that will so distract her, she’ll actually feel less pain. This is based on real research, which found immersing burns victims in snowy VR landscapes reduced pain more effectively than morphine.

This is totally fascinating, yet somehow Ferrentino’s play is unsatisfying. I learnt more about pain and the brain from the programme notes than the show, where VR’s huge potential ultimately doesn’t seem to come to much. And while there are telling reversals in Jess’s relationships, her personal journey doesn’t really go anywhere either. Fleetwood’s sarcastic, frustrated drawl endures.

This sounds reductive. Life often doesn’t give us neat redemptive lessons, and nor should drama need to. And there’s much humane character work here. But I couldn’t help craving more of something – emotion, insight, drama. There’s also zero engagement with the wider politics or morality of America’s deployment of troops in Afghanistan.

The scale of Indhu Rubasingham’s production doesn’t help – Ugly Lies the Bone is a small domestic comedy-drama, and its very American, wise-cracking humour sometimes tumbleweeds in the Lyttelton. But I can see why it was programmed big: how else do you deliver the all-encompassing wonder of VR?

Actually, the VR remains un-wondrous in Es Devlin and Luke Halls’ design and projections. Domestic scenes are acted in front of projections of an aerial view of a city at night; these map precisely onto curved pale walls, built up with anonymous buildings like an architect’s model. When we’re in the VR world, projections of snowy mountains and pine trees cover the same space, and when Jess experiences a flashback, projections recreate the warzone.

There’s interesting potential here for using theatre to explore our perception of reality, especially given the compelling underlying medical research about how the 'fake' sensations of VR nonetheless still have a ‘real’ impact on 'real' pain.

But we’re never transported the way Jess is – the VR snowscape feels unconvincing. It can’t map to the 3D city-scape set. And its constructed nature is further enhanced by showing the black-and-white digital modelling stages, reminding you these pictures are fake, preventing you from feeling the wonder of immersion Jess feels. The potentially fruitful slippages between reality, memory, illusion – all created onstage through a medium that is itself always a recreation of another reality – therefore never take place.

Ugly Lies the Bone is at the National Theatre untill 6 June.