Touring – reviewed at Theatre Royal, Northampton
Later this month, Cyndi Lauper’s, Harvey Fierstein’s and Jerry Mitchell’s musical Kinky Boots plays in the Derngate to kick off its UK tour. Although American-made, it’s returning to its spiritual home. However, across the labyrinthine foyer is the quaint toy box Royal theatre, home to the latest ‘Made in Northampton’ production, Bryony Lavery’s new stage adaptation of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones. It’s about the utterly harrowing story of 14-year-old Susie Salmon, who watches down on the world she’s left behind after being murdered. However, Melly Still’s production is vibrantly theatrical and Lavery’s deft text balances the cold details of the story while bringing out the catharsis and hope in life after loss.
Susie is in limbo where she meets Franny, a heavenly caretaker and sort of spiritual guide to the place in which she finds herself and the rules of her new existence. From here she narrates her story; the retelling of her murder is shocking and brutal, but is interspersed with Susie’s memories such as her first kiss – a small but by no means trivial event that emphasises the fact that Susie is a typical young girl, full of vitality and teenage foibles who’s life has been crudely torn from her.
Unprepared and abandoned, Susie tries to understand her circumstances. Intent on justice, she leads her desperate father to foil her murderer; gets angry at her mum for sleeping with the detective; shares her sister’s experiences of discovering love; and comes to terms with watching her friends and siblings grow up without her.
Brief moments of whimsy, such as Susie’s ecstatic lounging to the sounds of Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, or her calling on all the dogs in heaven for an angelic game of fetch, offer a reprieve from the terrestrial grief, while reminding us that it’s the small things in life that enrich us. Memories of splashing through icy water and capturing her mother in a rare moment of vulnerability are the things Susie values, and this epitomises Lavery’s (and Sebold’s) talent for homing in on the strangely melancholic nature of happiness.
Stuck in a place in between the living and the dead, Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s design cleverly toggles these two worlds, playing with notions of what we can see and believe, what is tangible and what isn’t. An angled mirror stands at the back reflecting the stage. Some parts appear odd in the mirror such as a chair seemingly attached to the back wall. Other things only make sense in the mirror such as the cornstalks which appear the right way up only in the mirror. Jabares-Pita further distorts things with her use of two-way mirrors, affording us glimpses into a space beyond. This gives Still a space to create the effect of staging the ghostly. But, perhaps conversely, it is also a space to show the concrete and the intimate, such as sister Lindsay’s first time having sex. And again, it’s also a space for the internalised. Overall, we find ourselves occasionally watching things on stage, occasionally watching the reflections, occasionally through the glass, and often all three. It’s a complex, mesmeric design made all the more stunning by Matt Haskins’ lighting and Still’s stage images: a blur of telephone wires, the gentle falling of snow, subtle and simple puppetry, and Mike Ashcroft’s effective use of movement.
The cast live up to the task set for them, very swiftly doubling up from dogs to boyfriends, or from little brothers to worldly classmates. Keith Dunphy brings a cold presence as the murderer Mr Harvey. Susan Bovell adds some much-needed humour as the cop with a southern-drawl and dry wit and as Susie’s nan. But, if anyone’s, this is Charlotte Beaumont’s show, playing Susie with all the breezy confidence, naivety and tempestuousness of teenage-dom. She and Ayoola Smart as Lindsay have a palpable connection despite Lindsay not being able to see or hear Susie. Smart’s performance is subtly effective, and it is in Lindsay that we see the fullness of the grieving process; she is confused, enraged, and ultimately happy again. She matures before our eyes while Susie remains forever young, and this disparity between Susie’s stasis and Lindsay’s faltering progress is deeply moving.
About a minute in to this performance, the stage manager stopped the performance due to technical difficulties. After clearing the auditorium and about a 40 minute wait, they were able to restart the show. I’m so glad that the performance went ahead (props to Beaumont and the company for doing those opening moments again) as The Lovely Bones is one of the best plays I’ve seen this year. In fact, Melly Still’s vital production is the best page to stage adaptation I’ve seen since Curious Incident.
The Lovely Bones plays at the Royal & Derngate until 22nd September before touring to the Everyman Liverpool, Northern Stage, Birmingham Rep, and New Wolsey Theatre.
Charlotte Beaumont in The Lovely Bones. Credit: Sheila Burnett