Bryony Lavery’s adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel The Lovely Bones, the first stage production of the book, is a bold, imaginative and moving production, with a compelling performance at its heart.
Charlotte Beaumont is Susie Salmon, the 14-year-old girl murdered by her neighbour in the 70s, “when people thought things like this didn’t happen.” Stuck in a frustrating heaven of sorts, where wanting the things she wants – to not be dead, to see her killer brought to justice – are preventing her from moving on, she watches with mounting frustration as her family unspool in the aftermath of her death.
Beaumont, splendidly clad in 70s attire, is convincing both as naïve girl whose life is brutally torn apart – only kissed once, and innocent enough that she will follow a middle-aged man into a bunker in a field – and as the ageless spirit who has to find a way to grow without ever being able to grow up. Suspended and near-powerless, she sees the realities of adulthood that were hidden from her stripped bare – an emotionally numbed mother succumbs to an affair, the boy she liked grows up and lives a life without her, her killer is left free to take yet more young lives. It’s a performance of considerable power and punch. Her Susie is multifaceted and contradictory, likeable and bratty, impulsive and smart, a girl who died for following the rules (be polite to neighbours! Even if they’re creepy!) but gets her revenge by learning how to break them.
Beaumont is surrounded by an able cast. Ayoola Smart is particularly good as sister Lindsey, growing up in the shadow of her sister’s death and maturing into womanhood under her watchful gaze. Emily Bevan and Jack Sandle do well as her grieving parents, though undermined slightly by the occasional melodrama of the script. Keith Dunphy as Mr Harvey copes admirably in a role that is one-note creepy, while Pete Ashmore, Karan Gill and Natasha Cottriall are sympathetic as the damaged cop investigating the killing and the friends left behind. Susan Bovell is a scene-stealer as Susie’s hard-drinking, straight-talking grandma, and Bhawna Bhawsar is impressive both as Susie’s exasperated guide to the afterlife and as the Salmons’ cynical neighbour, waiting out suburbia until her son has graduated medical school and the family can escape.
The production looks stunning. Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s multi-layered, mirrored design is, like the suburbia it depicts, deceptively straightforward, but with many hidden secrets. It is used to incredible effect, heaven’s actions overlaying earth’s, and is complemented well by Dave Price’s music and Helen Skiera’s sound design. A scene where a distraught Susie seeks the solace of David Bowie and dances out her own Space Oddity is one of the most striking you will see on stage all year, beautifully done and heart-rending in its simplicity.
Not everything works. The play is staged with no interval, and occasionally sags: a tighter edit would have served it better. While Melly Still directs with flair and most of the show’s flourishes work, they are laid on heavily, and some are more successful than others. Many of the characters feel soapy and thinly sketched, and the piece never quite grapples successfully with the scale of grief, the sheer weight of it; nor does it manage to capture the sense of a whole era’s innocence lost the way the novel does so evocatively. While generally good at leavening the darkness of the story with enough humour and wit that it doesn’t become overwhelming, at times that jars: the All Dogs Go to Heaven finale feels particularly trite.
However, overall it succeeds far more than it fails. It has taken a dense, thorny novel and crafted it into a clever and striking production with plenty of emotional heft, and a heroine you won’t soon forget.
The Lovely Bones is on at Northern Stage until 20 October, then touring. Click here for more information.