In the opening scene of Ugly Lies the Bone, war veteran Jess is alone on stage with a walking aid. A disembodied voice instructs her to “open your eyes” and guides her into a virtual reality world that aims to alleviate her crippling pain.
Returning home to Florida after suffering severe burns in Afghanistan, Jess (Kate Fleetwood) struggles to cope with her changed appearance and her changed hometown on the Space Coast. Nasa’s shuttle launch pad is closing and jobs are scarce.
Instructed by the voice in her headset (Buffy Davis), she creates a VR world that allows her to escape the pain and her restrictive body. Audiences are immersed in the experience alongside Jess thanks to Luke Halls’ powerful video design. The vast concave stage is transformed into a beautiful snowscape with trees, a lake and feathers for falling snow.
Fleetwood’s performance is utterly convincing. A scene where she struggles to change out of her “boys clothes” – as her sister describes them – and into a pretty dress to watch the last shuttle launch with her ex-boyfriend (Ralf Little) is particularly poignant; she lets out gasps of pain while humming slowly to her herself.
Kris Marshall as Kelvin and Olivia Darnley as Kacie; main picture above: Kate Fleetwood as Jess (photos by Mark Douet)
Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino was inspired by the use of VR to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. Clinical trials show 60% of patients experienced a 30% reduction in pain when using this pioneering technology. Comparatively, morphine generally reduces pain by 25%. After the performance viewers are invited to try VR for themselves and an immersive pain control therapy similar to that which Jess experiences.
Given the dark subject matter, you might expect Ugly Lies the Bone to be a bleak evening out, but the sarcastic humour of Jess, her hapless ex-boyfriend and her sister’s boyfriend (Kris Marshall) will have you laughing out loud. At one point Jess glimpses herself in a mirror her sister had tried to hide and says “We look like s**t. Especially you. At least I have an excuse!” Initially Jess’s over-buoyant sister Kacie (Olivia Darnley) is quite grating but we learn she too is a woman on the edge; she’s juggling caring for both her sister and mother, who is suffering from dementia.
Lindsey Ferrentino’s UK debut is honest and thought-provoking. It shines a light on VR pain therapy, but only scratches the surface of the psychological pain Jess is suffering. We flit between the VR world and reality but it’s the former that steals the show.
Ugly Lies the Bone is at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre until 6 June