“Beauty is but skin deep, ugly lies the bone. Beauty dies and fades away, but ugly holds its own.”

This anonymous quote inspired the title of Lindsey Ferrentino’s newly written one-act play, showing at the National Theatre until the 6th of June. This is quite a debut from Ferrentino: Ugly Lies the Bone is an important and gripping exploration of what it’s like for a person to return home after unimaginable trauma, but it is also an assertion of the value to be found in life, even one that seems monotonous and uninspiring. Taking inspiration from the quote that birthed its title, Ugly Lies the Bone demonstrates that adventure and the desire to explore are fickle friends, but once they have passed we can grow to see that there may be something we were missing about the places we left behind in order to pursue them.

Ugly Lies the Bone centres around a U.S. soldier who has returned badly injured from her third tour of Afghanistan. Jess’s (Kate Fleetwood) beauty has not “fade[d] away”; it has been burnt off in an IED explosion and she now faces the task of integrating back into life in her home town of Titusville, Florida. Jess is constantly trying to find some connection to her old self in her appearance, even going as far to ask old flame Stevie (Ralf Little), “do you remember my skin?” Alongside trying to find work, reconnect with old friends, and coping with her changed appearance, she is undergoing a new form of treatment to help her with the crippling pain of her injuries. The treatment involves Jess being immersed into virtual reality world; the person counselling her (Buffy Davis) – who both the audience and Jess experience only as a disembodied voice – tells her, “we’re going to build you a perfect world” in order to distract her from her pain and asks for Jess’s suggestions in order to construct this world for her. The play opens on her first session in the virtual world, and as the story unfolds the audience witnesses Jess’s creation of her own ideal space, and sees this juxtaposed against her attempts to reintegrate into the unideal surroundings of Titusville, the home she left behind.

It is not only Jess who has undergone a significant change, her former home is also coming to the end of an era. Ugly Lies the Bone is set in 2011, the year of the final NASA shuttle launch. To give an indication of the economic significance of this event to the play’s setting, the airport that lies just to the South of Titusville is to this day called Space Coast Regional Airport. In one of the most affecting moments of the play, Jess and Stevie, the now married former boyfriend who she left behind to go to war, sit on the rooftop to watch the last space shuttle take off. They reminisce about the past – it is at this point Jess asks Stevie about her skin – and contemplate the uncertain future as they watch the vehicle that has for so long supported the town’s economy soar off into the heavens. For any Sondheim aficionados out there, this scene will bear striking similarities with the final moments of Merrily We Roll Along, and the way in which it is staged under Indhu Rubasingham’s direction brings the audience right into this poignant moment.

The set for Ugly Lies the Bone is miraculous. A three dimensional map of Titusville slopes up and around the action, forming what I suppose can roughly be described as an amphitheatre. This backdrop is transformed either into a lit up cityscape, or Jess’s virtual world through light projections, which lends this production a great sense of dynamism. Furniture and scenery for individual scenes either glides between the stage and the sloped walls, or drops from above. To create the front room of the house Jess shares with her sister, Kacie (Olivia Darnley), a suspended large panel hovers to form a ceiling, and a mesh of pictures hang in the air to represent a back wall. When Jess and Stevie go up to the roof, the “ceiling” drops down to ground level and becomes the rooftop. It then rotates so that the edge protrudes over the edge of the stage and the two characters sit with their feet almost brushing the heads of the people in the first row of the stalls, positioning Jess and Stevie in an isolated space between the separate worlds of the stage and the audience.

As Jess and Stevie gaze up at the final shuttle racing into the atmosphere, there is a palpable sense of their youth completely fading away, and Ugly Lies the Bone pivots around this moment in order to examine the necessity to keep moving through life. The idealised world that Jess creates is a snowy mountainscape, and her time spent there is devoted to climbing higher and higher towards the distant peak. However, she gradually realises that both this struggle and the struggle she experiences to reintegrate into civilian life have no definable end: neither she nor her life will ever be “fixed” in a complete sense. The line, “we’re going to build you a perfect world” turns out to be a lie: no such world is possible.

It may sound from this that Ugly Lies the Bone is bleak and depressing, but it is not; it is in fact a wonderfully perceptive and life-affirming piece of theatre about living in an imperfect world. The play centres around a war veteran in order to provide a visibly striking image of the damage that can be wrought by life, but Jess uses this realisation as a spur to keep moving forward and to appreciate the journey onwards rather than the unattainable destination. Jess’s own development in this regard is illustrated most clearly by her changing relationship with her sister’s apparently useless boyfriend, Kelvin (Kris Marshall), the only character in the play who did not know her before her injuries, and to whom she is openly hostile from the moment they meet.

Ugly Lies the Bone is a remarkable play, especially considering it is Ferrentino’s debut script. It is fantastic to see a new playwright be given such a prominent stage, and Kate Fleetwood’s performance is truly moving. The biggest moment of surprise I experienced during the performance was actually when the actors came out to bow and there were only five of them. This play really feels like it explores not only its characters, but also its location, and to attain such an effect with a small cast is a brilliant achievement. I feel the final words from the quote that inspired Ugly Lies the Bone’s title to be relevant both to the journey of the characters that appear on the stage and to this play’s future reception: “ugly holds its own”.

Ugly Lies the Bone is showing at the National Theatre until the 6th of June, tickets can be found here.