As I get older, gentle reader, I discover how relatively poorly-read I am. If I had a fiver for everyone who has said “oh, they’re making a play out of The Lovely Bones? Wow, it’s a brilliant book, I wonder how they’ll do it” then I would have … well, several fivers. Not only have we never read it, we’d never even heard of it. Do we live under a rock or something?
Bryony Lavery has adapted Alice Sebold’s award-winning and best-selling (apparently) 2002 novel into a play co-produced by the Royal and Derngate, Birmingham Rep and Northern Stage. There was also a 2009 film, which got a mixed reception, bordering on the disappointing; I note the use of the words “cloyingly sentimental” and “squalid” in some of its reviews.
Well there’s no doubt in my mind that you couldn’t possibly ascribe those adjectives to this production. From its sudden, shocking start (which has everyone jumping out of their seats) to its unexpectedly happy ending, this is a delight through and through, with a very moving, very sad but often very funny story, a razor-sharp script, wonderful theatricality, tip-top lighting and sound, superb ensemble work and a simply beautiful central performance.
I’m not giving the game away by saying that Susie Salmon is dead. She was raped and murdered and chopped into little pieces. But Susie is welcomed into her own heaven, guarded and guided by the fearsome Franny, and from there she can see her family and friends coming to terms (or not, as the case may be) with what’s happened to her. To say that she’s furious is an understatement. She had so much life to lead, and how stupid of her to believe that man and accept his invitation into his cellar! But under the circumstances, I bet the majority of 14-year-olds would. Can she somehow influence the police investigation into the crime? Can she infiltrate the minds (and even bodies) of those left behind, and remain part of their lives? And can she finally let go and allow the living to get on with their lives without resentment? You’ll have to watch the play to find out – but no doubt, you’ve already read the book and seen the film so you already know!
The stage design, by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, is instantly arresting and exciting. A blank canvas, with a cornfield in the distance, and with a white square spray-painted on the ground by Franny as she demarcates Susie’s own private heaven, like a football referee determining where the free-kick should start. Later on, in a rather cunning and slightly creepy double-use of the space, this will also become the floorplan for the murderer’s house. It did in part remind me, albeit much simpler, of the design for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but it’s none the worse for that. Snow falls, often; and it accumulates on the stage like a fluffy white heavenly cloud. And above the action, a slanting mirrored ceiling, that allows you to see the stage from overhead, accentuating the sense that Susie’s heaven is, indeed, somewhere in the sky. It also adds to the theatricality of the show, as it also reflects the wings of the stage, so you can sometimes see actors waiting to come on, or members of stage management milling around with their earphones on. Surprisingly, this isn’t a fault or a misjudgement; rather it simply enhances a sense of strangeness.
Dave Price’s incidental music weaves its way seamlessly into the piece, but even more memorable is how extracts from the soundtrack of our lives are included. If Susie Salmon was 14 when she died in 1973, she’s pretty much the same era as me, and I too would have wallowed on my bed to the sound of Space Oddity, or sang solemnly along with Heart of Gold. Matt Haskins’ lighting design is – literally – electric, with its terrifying flashes, the accurate way it picks out the white borderline of heaven, the simple but scary headlights of the murderer, and its convincing representations of daylight and dungeon. Technically this is a dream of a show.
At the heart of the entire performance is Charlotte Beaumont as Susie; once on stage, she’s never off. She’s an immensely likeable actor, and her Susie is a very well-rounded, charming, funny, accurate portrayal of a 14-year-old girl cut off in her not quite her prime yet. She has a wide-eyed innocence that really drives home the youth of the character, and reflects the immaturity that causes Susie to be so anxious about life carrying on without her. But as the character progresses through the years, even though Susie doesn’t age like the rest of her friends and family, she discovers an element of maturity in her attitudes and finds a contentment that can allow her to dance her way forward at the end to the rhythm of Tears for Fears. I just loved her performance. I was on her side all the way through. I only know Ms Beaumont from her appearances in TV’s Broadchurch, but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for her future stage performances.
I really enjoyed Jack Sandle and Emily Bevan as Susie’s parents, Jack and Abigail. Mr Sandle gave a terrific performance as a broken man, devastated by the loss of his daughter, who then fixates on the man whom he suspects has murdered her, and becomes a one-track cipher as a result. Ms Bevan coolly portrayed Abigail’s coping strategy of distancing herself from the family, looking inside herself for answers and reasons to live, and following a course of action that breaks up the unit. I totally believed Abigail’s motivations and found it a very moving performance.
Keith Dunphy, as Mr Harvey, is a constant source of creepiness, with his unexpected turns of violence, psychopathic reassurances to himself that everything will be alright, and his easy manipulative lying. This can’t be an easy role to get right, but Mr Dunphy is superb. The suspense that built during the scene where Ayoola Smart’s Lindsey breaks into his house and discovers evidence against him just as she realises he has returned and is also in the house, had me chewing my fingers.
The supporting cast are all excellent, but I particularly enjoyed Susan Bovell as the unsympathetic cop and the “evil mother” Lynn, Bhawna Bhawsar as Franny and the cynical Ruana Singh, the no-nonsense mother to the excellent Karan Gill’s Raj Singh, who first finds adolescent love with Susie.
At 97 minutes with no interval, your attention never wanders, and I didn’t even miss having an interval (which is unusual for me). After its run in Northampton, it tours to Liverpool, Newcastle, Birmingham, finishing in Ipswich in November. We were both totally enthralled by it and are tempted to go again. Don’t miss it!
P. S. In the performance we saw, we had to break after about thirty minutes because of a medical emergency in the stalls. We were asked to remain in our seats and the performance would continue as soon as possible. About 25 minutes later, with the unwell person hopefully out and on the road to recovery, we resumed from the beginning of the scene that was interrupted. I must say, the cast had looked very concerned as they realised something was going on in the auditorium but didn’t know what! I wondered to what extent they would be able to pick the play up again 25 minutes later – but I needn’t have worried – it was an immaculate performance. Super troupers every one of them!
Production photos by Sheila Burnett