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Ugly Lies the Bone review at National Theatre, London – ‘spectacular visuals’

Kate Fleetwood in Ugly Lies the Bone. Photo: Mark Douet
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Virtual reality still exists in that uncharted intersection between gaming, movie-going and theatrical experience. But Lindsey Ferrentino’s play, Ugly Lies the Bone, which premiered in New York in 2015 and marks her UK debut, examines the use of VR as medical tool. Specifically, for pain relief.

In trials, at least 60% of patients experienced around a 30% reduction in pain. Morphine usually reduces pain by around 25% and is catastrophically addictive.

Half of Jess’ body was burned by an IED in Afghanistan and she’s in constant, debilitating pain. Now back in her hometown, near Cape Canaveral and affected by closures at the NASA base, she’s part of a VR pain relief programme. Guided by a therapist’s disembodied voice she immerses herself into a snowscape where she can move more freely and forget about the skin grafts holding her body together.

Cue a dazzling barrage of VR trickery, walls of generated imagery fluttering and unfolding into existence. Es Devlin’s set is like a hemispherical slice of a velodrome, walls curved, and in this crater Fleetwood stands as if on the moon. But as the lights get brighter and Luke Halls’ video projections start to appear it becomes clear that the pocked surface is the relief map of a city.

And suddenly we aren’t in the VR world anymore, but instead in the humdrum of Jess’ home – her sister a teacher, her mum in a care home. Indhu Rubasingham’s production oscillates between these two worlds – the real and the generated – but it’s only the VR world that’s captivating.

Kate Fleetwood is unrecognisable as Jess, and not just because of the prosthetics scarring half her face. There’s a softness in her performance too. She’s sarcastic, and hardens as the play progresses, as frustration at her slow recovery mounts, but Fleetwood’s trademark intensity is absent, and it works well.

It’s a physically gruelling performance. Fleetwood summons a juddering stiffness in her limbs so that the tightness of her skin grafts is palpable. She’s matched by an endearingly goofy performance from Ralf Little as her ex boyfriend Stevie, laid off by NASA and now working in a gas station.

Rubasingham’s production exists in two modes: the deliberately mundane world which drags Jess down with its endless conversations about grocery shopping, and the spectacular VR environment. But the split between boredom and release isn’t just felt by Jess. It extends to the audience too. Because an awful lot of very high quality flash is propping up a slightly thin play.

The production’s best moments come when Fleetwood stands alone in spectacular virtual landscapes, as if in the eye of a storm, escaping the torment of the world. But these moments are few. As a vehicle for showcasing VR technology, and informing about this pioneering treatment, the production is excellent. In terms of character depth and development, however, it’s a two-dimensional affair, despite the stellar efforts of Fleetwood.

Find tickets for Ugly Lies the Bone on The Stage Tickets

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Spectacular visuals fail to enliven a frustrating play about virtual reality