Writer: Bryony Lavery from the book by Alice Sebold
Director: Melly Still
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Susie Salmon is a typical fourteen-year-old on the cusp of womanhood, not quite a child, not quite grown up, even if she has had her first kiss with Ray Singh. But Susie is very different to most fourteen-year-olds: Susie was brutally raped and murdered by a neighbour and is talking to us from her heaven, a place from which she can watch the goings-on on earth but can no longer influence events. Maybe, if she pushes very hard at the in-between, those left behind might just get a sense of her.
Susie sees her father’s obsession with proving the guilt of her murderer based on little more than a hunch take over his life, pushing away his wife Abigail who, in her grief turns elsewhere for comfort. Her younger sister, Lindsey, becomes truculent as she tries to cope with her own growing up even as she has to come to terms with no longer having an older sister, ultimately finding companionship with Samuel Heckler. Then there’s Ray Singh who forms an unlikely alliance with the slightly odd Ruth Connors who writes poetry about Susie and is the most sensitive to her presence. Over the years between Susie’s death in 1973 to 1985, we ultimately see each character, including Susie, deal with overwhelming grief and move on.
Woven into this tapestry are also the subplots of the failure of the police to apprehend the killer, Mr Harvey, and of Harvey’s own story.
The Lovely Bones was Alice Sebold’s first novel and quickly became a classic, treating its subject matter sympathetically but never patronisingly. Adapting such a story, narrated by the dead Susie, is a daunting task. But adaptor Bryony Lavery and director Melly Still – with some collaboration with Sebold – have undoubtedly cracked it. This adaptation is, quite simply, outstanding. The staging of Ana Inés Jabares-Pita is imaginative – a largely bare stage has an angled mirror above that gives different viewpoints and which also gives glimpses behind it to see parallel action taking place, all supported by the lighting design of Matt Haskins – often harsh and monochromatic – and a soundscape of specially composed and contemporary (to the 1970s) music: a rendition of Both Sides Now as the action comes to its climax from Natasha Cottriall is chillingly beautiful. But this isn’t a wholly melancholy evening – there are plenty of moments when a tissue will come in handy, it’s true, for example, when Susie is visited by Harvey’s other victims, but there are also moments of joy, for example, when Susie, learning that she can manipulate her heaven, fills it with dogs dancing to country music.
Central to the whole are intelligent portrayals of the characters as each undergoes their own painful journey. Charlotte Beaumont is a constant presence as Susie – telling the story, pushing the boundaries of her heaven, even having tantrums when other characters won’t (can’t) listen. The polar opposite to Susie is her killer, Mr Harvey, played by Keith Dunphy. Outwardly charming, if reserved, there is a palpable feeling of menace when Dunphy is on stage. One feels that this is one man one would not want to be alone with for any length of time. Beaumont and Dunphy together provide a masterclass in acting.
The growth of the other teens – Lindsey (Ayoola Smart), Ruth (Natasha Cottriall) and Ray (Karan Gill) is well illustrated, with the emotions of each laid bare. And one can feel the intense pain suffered by Susie’s father (Jack Sandle) that leads to his obsession and that drives his wife, Abigail (Emily Bevan) away. Abigail is perhaps a touch underplayed so that her way of coping is perhaps marginally less convincing – a minor criticism among such towering performances. Pete Ashmore is also perhaps a little understated as the increasingly frustrated policeman, Len Fenerman, though he brings us Samuel Heckler with rather more warmth.
Any criticisms, however, are trivial: this production is as good as any theatrical adaptation gets. Prepare for an emotional roller-coaster thanks to the tight direction and superlative acting in this worthy adaptation.
Runs Until 10 November and on tour | Image: Sheila Burnett