Returning to the National Theatre after 2015’s hit The Motherf*cker with the Hat, director Indhu Rubasingham takes on Lindsey Ferrentino’s 2015 play Ugly Lies the Bone.
Jess (Kate Fleetwood) has been on three tours of Afghanistan. Returning to her home town of Titusville in Florida, badly scarred and in pain, she must come to terms with her life again. Things have changed – her sister Kacie (Olivia Darnley) has started seeing professional layabout Kelvin (Kris Marshall), her mother (Buffy Davis) is suffering from dementia and no longer lives in the family home, and her ex-love interest Stevie (Ralf Little) is married with a new life. It’s not just her life that has changed; her family has evolved and the town that she knew has become a shadow of its former self.
Ferrentino’s play is divided: on the one hand telling the story of Jess’s return to family life, and on the other exploring the virtual reality pain management Jess receives. Ferrentino does a decent job of mixing those two narratives, jumping from one to the other while allowing the audience to empathise with Jess’s situation. Unfortunately in trying to cover so much I have to admit that at times the plot feels under-explored and, while the characterisation is good, the narrative lacks depth. The result (and I feel that Rubasingham’s direction has a lot to do with this) is that the play feels quite face value; it teeters on the edge of being something more emotional, but never quite manages to pack the punch that it’s evidently striving for.
That said, it does come close – a rooftop scene between Jess and Stevie as the two of them watch the shuttle launch and the return of Jess’s mother are both touching moments that Ferrentino handles well. But they feel stunted, and although they leave Jess exposed, before we’re ever really able to truly invest in the scenes, we’re whisked off to a virtual reality. In fact the play as a whole is often let down by the virtual moments, which at times slip into the surreal. That’s largely because, as an audience, it’s very difficult to truly empathise with what Jess is going through – we are shown the virtual images, but as Jess leaps over logs and is hit by a snow storm we don’t feel the same connection with that environment that she does.
But it’s a job well done by the cast. Fleetwood is as good as ever, and her performance as Jess is touching – she stumbles around the stage wincing, and balances the flippancy of the character with the underlying pain well. She’s feisty and does a solid job of using the more touching moments of the play to capture the audience’s empathy. The supporting cast are also an asset to the production: Little is spot on as the goofy ex-boyfriend, Marshall provides the comic relief and Darnley jumps from ditsy American blonde to concerned sister effectively.
As for Es Devlin’s design, it’s an intelligent one that merges Jess’s real world with the dream-like virtual reality world that has been built for her. From the off, the wall behind her invokes images of a war-torn country, sandy coloured, with furniture strewn around. But through some very clever video design by Luke Halls, Afghanistan turns to a Floridian town to mountain lakes and snow storms. The strewn furniture comes together to form her own living room, the shop in which Stevie works emerges from the debris, and so the lines between war and home and virtual reality are constantly blurred.
At times the design (and the direction of those designs) adds to the plays inconsistencies and, although the transitions were a pleasure to watch, they also highlighted just how fragmented it is.
The cast do a great job with quite a restricted narrative. Ferrentino does an admirable job at trying to balance the reality of returning from war with the virtual reality Jess experiences, but the play comes across as too fragmented and feels like it’s about half an hour shorter than it needs to be. This is a good production, but don’t go in expecting an emotional punch.
This review is based on the preview performance on 24th February. Opening night of the play is on Wednesday 1st March 2017. Ugly Lies the Bone is running until 6th June 2017 and tickets are available from the National Theatre website.
And the view…
Circle, Row F, Seat 32. Another good seat for the Lyttelton Theatre. This is only £15 for the current production so is a steal. Comfortable as ever, with decent legroom, and the sound was actually crystal clear despite not being all that near.