Jan 14, 2017blog

Review: Ugly Lies the Bone


The National Theatre’s new production follows a wounded veteran, Jess, as she returns to her family home on the Florida coast on the eve of the final space shuttle launch, and experiments with a pioneering new virtual reality therapy to heal her emotional trauma.

This play is not an inspirational tale of overcoming difficult odds. But nor is it a depressing tale about how some wounds can never heal.

Kate Fleetwood, who portrays Jess, expertly treads the fine emotional line between hardened veteran and vulnerable sister - at one moment attempting to reignite a lost romance with a former boyfriend (Ralf Little), the next laying a verbal smackdown on her new deadbeat brother in law (Kris Marshall, with his best American drawl).

Jess and her family inhabit a drab, featureless world surrounded by steep, curved walls. All the characters’ actions take place trapped at the bottom of this literal bowl.

It’s an assured choice of staging which gets across Jess’ feeling of being captive in her own body well, as well as being an astute metaphor for the economic woes afflicting the entire Space Coast as the shuttle program winds down.

This world only ever springs to life during Jess’ VR therapy sessions. The plain walls become a canvas for lavish outdoor scenes: from glassy lakes to snow-covered mountains. The video projection and lighting spectacular used to convey these therapy sessions is nothing short of an extravagant visual achievement.

Jess struggles to reconnect with her family and old friends, all the while taking refuge in astounding virtual wonderlands.

Kate Fleetwood as Jess. Photo: Mark Douet

It eventually becomes clear to Jess that despite its initial appeal, the virtual world has its limits. The well-meaning doctor who administers the therapy is remains unseen apart from her voice, perhaps hinting at the lack of any genuine human connection to be found in it.

It’s clear to the audience from the outset that the virtual world is incomplete, so it doesn’t come as much of a surprise to us when Jess catches on.

Ugly Lies the Bone fizzles away without any firm conclusion or catharsis. What message are we to take away from it?

This understated ending is almost certainly a commentary on the nature of Jess’ recovery. there are no simple solutions or answers to be found - everything is a process.

Bit by bit, she will get better.