Touring – reviewed at Theatre Royal, Northampton
It is one of the oldest notions in the world: the unquiet grave. From Sophocles to modern campaigns we are haunted by the idea that the violently dead cannot rest until the living either avenge them or find – perhaps carve – some deeper reconciliation.
Alice Sebold’s remarkable novel caught that timeless strangeness: the restless electricity of superstition that surrounds shock and sudden loss, and weaved it into a portrait of an ordinary family’s grief. Susie, the narrator, is a 14 year old walking home from school across a cornfield. Polite and trusting (it is set in 1973, more innocent times) she lets Mr Heckler the lonely neighbour show her a “clubhouse” underground he has built “for the local kids”. He gags her with her jingling woolly hat, rapes and kills her, hides her body, keeps a souvenir charm bracelet. From an inchoate limbo on the way to heaven Susie watches the investigation, impatient and frustrated, commenting and hoping; she wanders a ghost through her shattered family and sees her little brother growing up, her sister’s first love, her parents’ dislocation.
Bryony Lavery – no stranger to dangerous topics after her unsettlingly brilliant Frozen – adapts Sebold’s novel for this first stage version, directed by Melly Still. The topic makes you shudder, and the opening moments certainly do despite their discretion: the ultimate nightmare is not treated pruriently, but not softened. Yet what emerges is a powerful, hopeful triumph of human love. A theatrical triumph too, not least thanks to a remarkable set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita: a shimmering cornfield horizon bisects a world below and its reflection far overhead. Sometimes it is a true reflection, sometimes showing something else. Sometimes Susie is brightly lit, the others dim; sometimes all seem to be together, in flashback or apparitions.
Charlotte Beaumont is a revelation as Susie. Looks easily 14, smaller than the others and briskly childlike in her bright yellow trousers, she roams around her strange reflected ghost-world among adults and siblings who can’t see or hear her – but sometimes eerily sense her. As children do she mainly takes the strangeness of her new lot pragmatically, and afizz with young energy moves between brisk teen impatience, astonishment, dismay, tenderness, laughter and frustration. She wills Heckler to “make a mistake!”, irritated at the detective’s failure to pick up clues in the field, in his house, in his beige-anoraked, bespectacled persona as a tolerated local weirdo (Pete Ashmore catches that creepy plausibility horribly well). “He’s got most of me IN HIS BASEMENT!” shouts Susie, as he bustles carefully around.
Altogether she is quite wonderful: more than one of us came out asking “Who’s that kid?”. As her parents, Emily Bevan and Jack Sandle are all too credible as their marriage threatens to crumble. Families in tragedy sometimes do. He becomes obsessed with nailing the suspect Heckler, and she needs to move on, feed her other children, grieve and seek solace.
Sebold does not indulge in any safe-in-the-arms-of-Jesus sentimentality: Susie does feel – reflecting every bereaved parent’s cry – the unfairness of young death. “I want to grow up!” She calls on David Bowie music for comfort. Seeing her younger sister – now older than she was – have a tender initiation to lovemaking the violated, chopped-up victim says sadly “My sister sails away from me…”. Her own school boyfriend is with her friend Ruth now, growing up, they talk of her but move on. A strange ghost moment reconciles her. Her own companions in the limbo now are Bhawna Bawsar’s Fran, a social worker in life who has chosen helping newcomers as her own heaven, and eventually a heartbreaking host of puppet-dresses, the other little girls Heckler killed.
There is a point just after midway in its tight 110 minutes when you find yourself impatient, feeling too entangled in the problems of the living. You want the simple Agatha-Christie relief of seeing the net closing around the killer. But like Susie, like all of them, you need to admit that no, just zapping the bastard is not enough. For human resolution vengeance may not even be entirely necessary. The “lovely bones” which at last satisfy and give a heaven to Susie are those that grow around the people close to her: a new scaffolding of love.
Her heaven is to see the world go on, without her yet with herself still woven into others’ identities and affections. And to turn in the last moment to the audience , grin, and wish well to the living. In what should be a long and successful career, young Charlotte Beaumont will rarely get a line that jerks so many tears.
box office royalandderngate.co.uk to 22 Sept and touring, to 17 nov, see below