The Lovely Bones – Theatre Royal Nottingham

Writer: Bryony Lavery from the book by Alice Sebold

Director: Melly Stil

Reviewer: CL Delft

Alice Sebold’s The  Lovely Bones was an unlikely literary best-seller in the mid-2000s: it tells the story of the consequences of a child murder and its impact on her family and community, seen from the point of view of the murdered child (Susie Salmon) herself. 

Bryony Lavery, who has adapted the novel for the stage, has form in this kind of subject matter: her 1998 play Frozen centred around the abduction and murder of a child and the subsequent relationship between the murderer, the child’s mother, and an academic criminologist.  In Frozen, the pivotal child is absent from the action but in The Lovely Bones, she is very much central as both narrator and omniscient chorus figure, alternately encouraging cajoling and defying her shattered family and the police investigators in their convoluted search for the identity of her killer – always referred to by Susie, with impeccable middle-class decorum, as ‘Mr. Harvey’. 

For a main character who is killed in the opening five minutes of the play, Susie is highly articulate and loquacious and in this huge role Charlotte Beaumont gives a very convincing performance as a young teenager.  She is ably supported by Nicholas Khan as her deceptively ‘normal’ murderer, Catrin Aaron as her tortured (and adulterous) mother, Jack Sandle as her loving but ineffectual father and Lynda Rooke as her blowsy and interfering grandmother.  Excellent performances also come from Fanta Barrie as the murdered girl’s sister and Samuel Gosrani as her boyfriend.  These are just the most prominent roles in Melly Still’s intensely physical and inventive production, where actors switch roles at the drop of a lighting cue, alternately becoming police dogs, schoolchildren and even, in one memorable moment, shards of broken glass!  Movement director Mike Ashcroft must be credited with some striking stage pictures. 

Yet, for all this, the story itself is strangely uninvolving: maybe the form taken and the focus on Susie herself (who seems to take quite naturally to the afterlife  and quickly makes friends with Mr. Harvey’s previous victims) militate against a greater emotional investment from an audience?  Despite the excellence of Beaumont’s performance, the character irritates as much as she compels (like most teenagers, perhaps?).  Only in the play’s final moments, as the meaning behind the title is revealed and Susie comes to understand how her absence has facilitated new relationships among her friends and family, does it have real emotional impact. 

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s deceptively simple but highly versatile set is a major asset to the production: using a huge mirror suspended from the flies to depict alternative configurations to the groupings we see on stage, the stage space convincingly becomes a suburban street, Mr. Harvey’s basement and garden, the Salmons’ living room and even, for much of the action, ‘heaven’.  Matt Haskins’ sympathetically plotted lighting design aids greatly in the creation of these illusions, as does Helen Skiera’s sensitive sound design.

Runs Until 28 September 2019 and on tour  | Image: Sheila Burnett

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