Writer: Bryony Lavery from the book by Alice Sebold
Director: Melly Still
Reviewer: Nicole Craft
Susie Salmon, 14, Pennsylvania, is dead. Having been violently raped and murdered by a neighbour, she is faced with the choice of crossing over into ‘her’ heaven or remaining in an in-between world where she can see the life she leaves behind. An amusingly stroppy teenager, she naturally decides to stick around and try and help her family solve her murder; everybody ultimately wanting justice to be served. But is justice really the most important thing?
The thought in our minds as we take our seats, the curtain up to reveal the angled mirror which will reflect the on-stage action throughout, is very much one of ‘well that’s how they’ll conquer creating the ghost then’. How very wrong we are! Susie (whose teenage innocence and insolence are captured spectacularly by Charlotte Beaumont) is very much present on-stage from start to finish, unable to leave her salty square of heaven which weaves itself firmly into the real-life action that unfolds. The mirror is far from a gimmick, though, being inventively used to add layer upon layer of action and detail to each scene – occasionally meaning there is almost too much going on to notice it initially, but not being entirely sure if this is a bad thing.
When attending the theatre on a regular basis it can be all-to-easy to get a bit complacent with what impresses you in terms of design and effects. There is no such danger with this production, however, as the combined use of lighting (particularly the opening scenes which are staggering), mirrors and movement create an immersive experience quite like no other. The effects, at times, are subtle but the ambitions are huge and it’s a decision that completely pays off; to the point that it is a pleasant surprise to see the staging was facilitated in-house.
For the most part, the actors work together well and all allow us to invest in their characters and there are too many notable performances to mention individually; the slight exceptions to this are Pete Ashmore in his role as Len, the detective – his efforts feeling somewhat laboured to begin with and preventing the script from flowing quite as it should – and in some respects Emily Bevan as Abigale who slips in to the background more that is probably intended.
Death and grief – whether from those who die or those left behind – is such a tricky subject to portray and this is only emphasised when creating something for the stage; with the added challenge of inviting the audience to feel part of the story yet with the actors right there to see and hear their reactions if it goes too far, or not far enough. However, nothing on this score can be faulted and even the sensitive scene of Susie’s rape and murder is tackled with an overwhelming sense of taste and haunting beauty.
The main criticism (and trust me, it’s hard to find any) with this production would be the chosen length and pace. The first few scenes pack in a lot of information before the pace settles and could have easily been stretched out slightly to take the show to a 2-hour running time and include an interval (1hr 40m with no break is a long time for some) – the reasons behind the decision not to have one unclear.
Having not read Alice Sebold’s book, on which this production is based, or seen the later film adaption myself it’s hard to judge whether the die-hard fans would agree, but as a standalone theatrical production, and possibly with a small amount of tweaking – Bryony Lavery’s stage adaptation is up there with the best. Be sure to pack the tissues.
Runs Until 22 September 2018 | Image: Sheila Burnett