Kate Fleetwood: ‘Incredible burns survivors shared their stories to help me play war veteran’

Robert Dex
Research: Kate Fleetwood as Jess: Geraint Lewis/Rex

Kate Fleetwood has paid tribute to the burns survivors who helped her research her role in the National Theatre’s new show.

The actress spends an hour and a half in make-up before each performance as badly burned American soldier Jess in Ugly Lies The Bone. To prepare for the role, she watched footage of “incredible burns survivors” on YouTube and spoke to a charity which helps those with disfigurements.

The actress, 44, said: “I spoke to the Changing Faces organisation who were amazing. They were so kind and candid with me and open about their experiences.

“I spoke to this wonderful girl called Kelly and she said, and this will never leave me, that being a burns survivor is like standing in front of a brick wall and trying to bash it down brick by brick to try and get people to stop doing things for you. To make them see you as the person you always were and the person you’re developing into and not to let the burns define you.”

The play is inspired by a real experiment in which patients at a burns clinic use virtual reality technology to ease their constant pain. It was hugely reduced when they spent time in a virtual setting — a snowy landscape with snowballs and penguins.

Fleetwood spends much of the show hunched over a walking frame, dragging her character’s damaged limbs across the stage.

She said the performance was “counter-intuitive” in some ways. “In theatre you are often trying to build energy so the audience are taken with you,” she said. “That can often mean you’re expansive, especially in a big theatre like this. But being a burns victim this kind of movement is the opposite to that.”

In the play Jess has returned home to Florida after serving in Afghanistan. The show stars Olivia Darnley as her sister Kacie, with Kris Marshall as her sister’s feckless boyfriend, Kelvin. Ralf Little plays Jess’s ex-boyfriend Stevie. It is set near Cape Canaveral as the US space programme is wound down, taking jobs and prosperity with it.

Little believes the show is a success because of its “lightness of touch” despite its heavy subject matter.

He said: “I think if we hit those laughs it really lifts the play and what is great is it is not overly sentimental or mawkish.”

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