SUSIE Salmon is 14 years old. She has been raped and murdered, dismembered, and her body hidden where it’s practically impossible to find.
And she is here to tell us her story.
Alice Sebold’s novel has been a hit with readers since its publication in 2002. Peter Jackson’s 2009 film version, however, had a more mixed response. Possibly this is because the elusive (and often illusory) nature of the story, told in the first person by a deceased protagonist, is much easier to bring fully to life in the imagination than in live action.
All power, then, to Adaptor Bryony Lavery and director Melly Still in achieving something as vividly visual and dramatically gripping as this theatrical version.
Central to the piece is an immensely focused and utterly compelling performance from Charlotte Beaumont as Susie. Onstage almost continually throughout the play’s unbroken 100 minute span, she absolutely holds the attention of the audience. Along with her are a great ensemble cast, among whom the deeply creepy figure of Keith Dunphy, playing the part of the serial killer Mr Harvey, particularly stands out.
A strong and disciplined cast are needed here, as there have to be attention grabbing performances to avoid being upstaged by the physical presentation of the play. Ana Ines Jabares-Pita has given us maximum visual impact with her set, in which a vast, angled mirror rises out of a corn field to span a large part of the Everyman’s stage. This enables us to see the action through Susie’s eyes, with the physical and ethereal worlds strangely separated but coexisting in the same space. The real coup of the staging comes with extraordinarily clever lighting, enabling us to see additional pieces of set and action suspended magically beyond the half-silvered surface of the mirror, which occasionally ripples with stage vibrations, causing the reflections to dance and shimmer now and again to intriguing effect.
From the arresting opening scene, in which we witness Susie’s gruesome murder, through to the sudden and equally unnerving denouement (In which I swear I find myself grabbing for the armrests of my seat) the play paces itself well. Melly Still has a knack when it comes to holding the tension in an auditorium, and whilst 1 hour and 40 minutes is a big ask for an audience without an interval, the capacity crowd seems pretty much glued to it in stillness throughout. True, the adaptation of such a weighty piece of writing is bound to skip some of the original content and perhaps dwell lightly on some parts of the story, but Lavery and Still have measured the task carefully and succeed in telling the central story and some of its sub-plots with clarity and a satisfying dramatic drive.
There are little moments of humour to give the audience chance to take a breath, whilst never overstepping the mark so far as to completely break the spell. There’s charming wit in the way the family dog Holiday and his other canine friends are brought to life, although it does make one think that the city’s vet must have been having a busy time. It seems that Karan Gill, who plays Susie’s school crush as well as Holiday the dog, may well have received some training from a border collie – oh to have been a fly on the wall in that rehearsal room!
In rather the manner of the National Theatre’s adaptation of Curious Incident, the use of the space in such a three dimensional way, with stunning visuals and stage movement, really makes this an immersive experience, putting us into the head of the leading player. All of this is capped off with an atmospheric soundscape, into which some of the performers’ voices are occasionally blended to good effect.
It’s worth mentioning that this production began life earlier in the month at Royal and Derngate Northampton, where it played end-on in a very different auditorium. The backstage crew have had to work tirelessly to ensure the complex staging works on the Everyman’s more intimate thrust stage, and this has also involved re-blocking much of the action. Huge credit goes to the cast and creatives for the success of this enterprise, which must have been no mean feat.
The Lovely Bones is produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Royal & Derngate Northampton and Northern Stage, in association with Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse. It plays at The Everyman until 6th October before moving on to Northern Stage in Newcastle, Birmingam Rep and New Wolsey Ipswich. And beware – tickets are getting scarce.