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FringeReview UK 2017

Ugly Lies the Bone

National Theatre, London

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Magic and Mentalism, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttleton


Low Down

Directed at the Lyttleton by Indhu Rubasingham, Lindsey Ferrentino’s 2015 play Ugly Lies the Bone heralds a cast led by Kate Fleetwood as Jess the burned gunner offered virtual reality rehab. Es Devlin designs, Luke Halls’ video design projects. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting terraces the raised grids . Ben and Max Ringham’s sound contrasts pop and the whoosh of somewhere stellar.


Lindsey Ferrentino’s 2015 play Ugly Lies the Bone arrives at the Lyttleton directed by Indhu Rubasingham with a cast led by Kate Fleetwood as Jess the burned and traumatised gunner offered virtual reality rehab. This offers pain displacement whilst painful exercise inches Jess’s body to articulate what it was.


Es Devlin’s design scours a cool curving world, a lunar-grey sci-fi city on which backdrop Luke Halls’ video design projects: Jess dons a different helmet to the one that scoured her when the IED went off. Lying in the gutter looking at the stars takes on new meaning as Jess returns to the NASA space coast of what was once home – a sci-fi boneyard where the last Shuttle’s about to blast off is indeed reality. Oliver Fenwick’s lighting terraces the grids on the surround, as if we’re voyaging on some Seventies-induced galactic cruiser. Ben and Max Ringham’s sound contrasts pop and the whoosh of somewhere stellar.


Easy plot closure would always prove difficult. It’s an aftermath with virtual options, as shrinking as Jess’s returning world – her town’s as eviscerated and burned as her skin: unemployment and foreclosure stalk everyone. Clever, cynically witty, experienced beyond anyone else, Jess yet perpetrates the hubris of Austen’s Emma: an engagingly opinionated, achingly intelligent protagonist who gets it wrong.


Fleetwood’s Jess first engages with Buffy Davis, the equivocal VR voice whose clipped formality and promises of Eden allows Jess to negotiate her VR environment with laggard grace. It’s more than she does when home. She admits a spasm’s not the VR helmet’s fit, but an eyelid finally engrafted after three takes.


As Fleetwood shivers Jess’s scar tissue, she walks at first in the jerks Kenneth More’s legless air-ace Douglas Bader attempts. More excruciatingly she can’t turn her head. Fleetwood’s on stage virtually as it were the whole time, overwhelming in her shuddery defiance. Her glare, often fixed ahead recalls her avenging Medea of 2015, but here the furies turn inwards: it’s her skin and mind that frazzle. There’s a dress too, though it’s an equivocal antidote to poison. In one infinitely touching, painful scene, she decides to don it and shed what her sister wincingly calls men’s clothes.


Olivia Darnley’s Kasie, the sister who gropes for the best, anxiously nuances the bubbly sad primary grade teacher who reaches out with her dream board: ’You glue on.. what you want from life, your ideas’. Why should that be funny to Jess who’s had a high-tech version built around her? Naturally, Kasie’s deflected pain isn’t comparable; we laugh with Jess at its goofy new-age evasions. Darnley’s Kasie squirms in and out of sympathy, trying not to step on emotional landmines. She also keeps away their dementia-confused mother.


Through another virtual reality, online, Kasie’s acquired Kelvin, a broken-knee plumber who lucklessly compares his ‘disability’ to Jess’s. Big lame mistake; instantly we see him through Jess’s eyes: a hopeless state-sucking confident waster who got lucky with once-beautiful (Ferrentino’s distinction) Kasie, who deserves better. Kelvin though we discover has used up his ink to create a Welcome Home, scoured the neighbourhood to invite everyone for a party, but not apparently Jess’s ex Stevie. He’s even sourced her a rare if dead-end job, since we realize no-one wants Jess back as a teacher. Nevertheless Jess violently accosts Kelvin for another reason. Kris Marshall’s lope of a role lurches in and out of effrontery, wrong calls, finally a dignified rebuttal to a nest of assumptions.


It’s unambitious Stevie who lost his lowly NASA job, whose empathy Jess seeks out when she tracks him down. Ralf Little treads a perilous wrong-call sensitivity. When they finally meet for a NASA finale, he blurts: ‘My wife would never watch this with me. This is awesome.’ Then realizes just how awesomely stupid that is. Yet Little convincingly bewilders his way to tenderness and Jess’s moment of trust in one unravelled scoop.


Stevie’s evasions, partly an unhappy marriage stem from a response to what Jess decided after her second tour: to return, not let comrades down, itself a PTSD symptom. Again it’s a wrong call from Stevie’s perspective and again Jess’s unimpeachable patriotism can’t be assailed. They reach to each other as the last shuttle blasts off, a sliver of intimacy interrupted by a sliver of lightning; demons return.


Denouements abound as Fleetwood glares assumptions; primarily it’s the equivocal VR experience itself we’re invited to question. As programme limits are spelt out at the apex of a pain breakthrough – a thrilling blast of commanded snowstorm – Fleetwood’s character realizes her own role. Ferrentino draws out the Dorothy motif in plimsolls jerked forward without a walker. There’s a clever avatar of the voice too, and though there’s a coochy moment, it’s by no means clear what life will do with Jess. Resolutions are still wired.


PTSD and military women power many debates. The play’s double thread means it can’t be compared with the immersive neatness of for instance Jennifer Haley’s The Nether, nor a naturalistic study of PTSD itself. Fruitful collisions in this open-ended approach – for instance the scene where Kasie’s taken to VR – suggest a scope that can’t be worked out in either. Despite slightly pat consolations, this drama readily breaks out of those intentions.