The Lovely Bones seems to have always gathered a bit of a mixed reaction in its previous forms as a novel by Alice Sebold and even more so in the film adaption with Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg and Stanley Tucci. But nonetheless the novel is a number-one bestseller, so surely there must be something in this story to make it be so popular, right?
Well, this stage adaptation by Bryony Lavery and directed by Melly Still is as thrilling as one can hope, surpassing those initial mixed feelings to present this deeply tragic, yet uplifting story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon's encounter in the afterlife following her rape and murder. This production is one of those beautiful moments in the theatre where the script and production work hand-in-hand effortlessly in telling this story in a moving, electrifying and harrowing way.
Charlotte Beaumont (best known to ITV's Broadchurch fans as Chloe Latimer) gives a sensational central performance as Susie. She naturally adopts the mannerisms and behaviour of a 14-year-old girl, with a bundle of energy, naivety, innocence and a sense of humour that wouldn't look out of place on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon from 10 or 20 years ago. Which is of course what makes it utterly heartbreaking knowing that she has had her childhood taken away, watching and being invisible to her family and friends while they cope without her and her killer walks free. Beaumont never leaves the stage being physically trapped in her "heaven" (closely monitored by Franny, played by Bhawna Bhawsar) and her energy and presence is marvellous while she her character suffers this horrible situation, yet bringing an element of optimism into her afterlife.
One's skin can't help but crawl whenever Keith Dunphy enters as the creepy murdering neighbour Mr Harvey. He is obsessive, omnipresent on stage, menacing, scheming and so eerily realistic that we all hope he will receive his comeuppance for his heinous crimes. Interestingly, this story examines how grief can take various forms on different family members, such as Susie's dad Jack, played by Jack Sandle who may be weaker of health but resilient in bringing justice. Her cigarette-puffing mother Abigail, played by Emily Bevan grows more distant and down-to-earth in wanting to live her life along with Len, played by Pete Ashmore the lead cop solving her murder. Her grandmother mother Lynn, played by Susan Bovell is caring, yet one to crack the jokes about alcohol even in this tragic time. The entire company supporting Beaumont including Ayoola Smart as Susie's sister Linsdey, Karan Gill as her love interest Ray, Nathasha Cottriall as classmate Ruth are all individually fantastic, but together show a sense of community and love for this deceased young girl.
On a technical level, this production is first-class and throughout the piece, there is always something thrilling going on. The rock-gig lighting by Matt Haskins can go from stunning and vibrant during Susie's flashbacks of happier times but switches in a moment to the dull, cold blue fog being her heaven. It integrates terrifically with both Helen Skiera's almost horror movie-like sound effects and the awesome 70's to 80's soundtrack featuring hits from David Bowie to Tears For Fears as well as the incidental rock underscore by Dave Price. But the most fascinating aspect is Ana Inés Jabares-Pita effective set design of a cornfield row, dirt surrounding the vast open stage (as the action takes place in the centre, like a coffin) and a large mirror that tilts forward at the back of the stage, reflecting the ground and offering a whole new "other-worldy" perspective of Beaumont and the company.
This is certainly a story that has and probably will continue to divide opinion, due to the heavy nature and adult themes. But it is nonetheless a prevalent and complex story that is happening every day, all over the world - however, Sebold has given us an incredibly human glimpse and a celebration of life which has been adapted so brilliantly well that becomes virtually everything you want in a good piece of drama.
The Lovely Bones runs at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 10th November.
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