The Lovely Bones – The HOUSE, Birmingham REP

Writer: Bryony Lavery from the book by Alice Sebold

Director: Melly Still

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Protagonist, the traumatised young teenager, Susie Salmon (‘like the fish’), following her abduction, rape, murder and dismemberment, maintains a compelling narrative as she navigates through and beyond the ‘Inbetween’. That gossamer veil separating her personal Heaven from her family still stupefied with guilt and grief demands an equally convincing stage dynamic. It can be done as was the immersive reality of Christine Mary Dunford’s recent, authoritative adaptation of Still Alice. Her alter/fragmenting, altering ego played by a doppleganger actor. But all the same, stage-ghosts can project as very un-supernaturally naif.

As for that gossamer veil? Anticipatory misgivings are soon dispelled with designer, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s, ingenious roof-suspended, mirror-gauze that reflects an angular, shimmering alt.reality tableau. An apposite, mercurial metaphor as Susie strives to escape the enforced square boundary of her appointed Heavenly confines – she can look but not touch. The limits of these boundaries, tested to their mortal/supernatural finality, are superbly realised when the first act climaxes with her sister Lindsay breaking in to murderer Mr Harvey’s house. Susie uses the chalk boundary marker as medium guiding her sister to vital, incriminating evidence. The ubiquitous crime-scene body outline ripples suggestively in the audience sub-conscious – blood and bones lie beneath her feet. Classic teenage-slasher trope of the pretty girl going into the spooky house. (Worked for Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks…) All the same, there are satisfying squeaks and squirms of electrified tension sparkling across the auditorium.

Prominent too, are the tall corn-stalks that haunt the peripheral confines of the austere set-design intruding as sentinel malevolent scarecrows marking the beaten earth beneath which Susie was murdered. Charlotte Beaumont’s Susie embraces the role with chipmunk-cheeky, innocent verve combined with visceral despair eventually tempered by her spiritual transition in letting the living get on with their lives beneath and inevitably beyond her. Fanta Barrie as Lindsay captures her reluctant intelligence and intolerance of well-meaning, condoling euphemisms. Proto-Goth, existential poet agonist, Ruth is done superb justice by Leith Lothian. Her teenage-tantrum departure to New York to immerse herself in her poetic immaculate anonymity is a delight. The incongruous portrayal of Holiday the human/dog, in his vet’s anti-fidget lampshade-collar is less convincing.

Alice Sebold’s narrative lends a seductive intimacy that stage dialogue can’t ever completely engage. Adaptor, Bryony Lavery, and Director, Melly Still, are wisely on to this, best demonstrating their intuitive empathy for the novel most poignantly where Susie meets other child-victims of the murderous Mr Harvey. A Congregation of the Dead, part mime/Restoration drama dumb-show, puppeteers glide the empty, tiny dresses of the victims in slow-time balletic symmetry – a microcosm of innocence betrayed in a pageant of unspoken horror. Its potent symbolism an apposite testament to our troubled times.

Enhanced by its intelligent, economic use of 70s contemporaneous music (not least, Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer being just too opportune to pass by) and original sound realisation by Dave Price, Matt Haskins’ lighting further conjures a corporeal medium almost malleable in its contrasts of intensity and pin-point subtle precision.

As with Susie’s anguished, bitter-sweet transition to eventual epiphanic release, so too for her mother, Abigail. The brief, two-hour passage on stage presents a daunting challenge to distillate her complex character. Catrin Aaron possesses the role with grace, incendiary rage and visceral vulnerability.

The macabre bathos of Mr Harvey’s freak, accidental death-by-falling-icicle, gratifying though it is, might be stretching plot resolution credibility to the limit: Lavery’s adaptation provides a more explicit, inclusive narrative context for this. Earlier, Lindsay swiftly unravels a locked-room murder conundrum by deducing the weapon to have been an icicle ‘dagger’ now melted. Might Lavery be teasing a further deduction that a mischievous Susie lends a hand in Harvey’s timely hubris? Heaven knows how.

This is an exceptionally gratifying production assured in its humanity in both tragedy and genuine moments of readily grasped humour. Commendably honest to the novel, daring in its originality of conception and design it sets the bar of recent novel to stage adaptations ever higher.

Runs Until 21 September 2019 and on tour  | Image: Sheila Burnett

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