11 October 2018

The Lovely Bones - Northern Stage

I was shocked to realise that Alice Sebold's international bestseller The Lovely Bones was published in 2002, and it's been sixteen years since I've read it. I remember at the time being shocked to the core by the subject matter. Set in the 70s, fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon gets lured into an underground den by serial killer Mr Harvey (who lives on her street). He violently rapes and murders her, dismembers her body and does his best to conceal her remains. Her 'ghost'/soul/spirit then goes on a mission to get him brought to justice, introducing us to her grief-stricken family and giving us glimpses into her short life in the process. Peter Jackson directed the Hollywood film in 2009, starring Saoirse Ronan as the ill-fated Susie (I need to rewatch it, I just remember Stanley Tucci being chilling as Mr Harvey). Even though it sounds hard to stomach, the show includes laugh-out-loud moments and a wonderfully nostalgic, uplifting soundtrack. 

The Lovely Bones Play
The ethereal poster - Susie in Heaven
When I heard that the production was coming to the Northern Stage, I was met with a mixture of morbid fascination and wonder about how it could possibly translate to the stage. I guessed it would take a huge amount of creativity to bring it life, and I wasn't wrong. Cue Bryony Lavery, the adapter who has managed to rise to the challenge(s) and director Melly Still - how anyone manages to distill a novel into a two hour play is beyond me! Needless to say, they have definitely done the material justice. 
The Lovely Bones Stage Play
The hunter and the prey reflected - Susie and Mr Harvey
Even though it's been a long time since I read the book or watched the film, I instantly felt that the casting of Susie (the brilliant Charlotte Beaumont) and Mr Harvey (the chilling Keith Dunphy) was damn-near perfect. The exact same feelings I had whilst reading the book were evoked in me very soon after the action started - impending doom, sorrow, shock and a very strong need to see justice be done. The production starts with a bang (literally) so brace yourself. Intense lighting and sound is cleverly used to set the mood. I was struck by the set from the second I walked into the theatre - an ominous cornfield provides the backdrop for the action, on another level the neighbourhood houses are represented as a kind of toy town. Events are made even more tense by the use of a mirror above the stage - I found myself watching the action from above a lot, which was a unique experience and added to the tension. 

The Lovely Bones stage play
Darkness and light - the 10 strong cast in turmoil. grief and confusion
It's difficult to watch Susie's distraught parents (Jack Sandle and Emily Bevan) inevitably fall apart, and her siblings (the academically and athletically gifted Lindsey (Ayoola Smart) and younger brother Buckley (Natasha Cottriall)) and friends try to carry on with their lives. Her Dad understandably unravels, but he occasionally feels Susie's presence and slowly realises that Mr Harvey is the perpetrator. Her Mum seeks comfort in the Detective (Pete Ashmore) investigating the case. Her no-nonsense, comedic grandmother (Susan Bovell) turns up in an attempt to hold things together (no easy task).  Susie's psychic and poetic friend Ruth Connors befriends fellow gifted student, Susie's first love and initial suspect Ray Singh (Karan Gill) who end up getting close through their grief. And all the while Susie, look on - sometimes fondly, sometimes mad as hell at what unfolds during the aftermath of her murder. 

There's a lot going on at times, with the action in the foreground and other characters appearing simultaneously in the background. Some cast members have more than one role, and surreally everyone plays a dog at points. The costumes perfectly suit the period and transport us to the 70s/80s, along with the powerful soundtrack (Bowie, Blondie and later Tears For Fears). 

Susie's Mum (Emily Bevan) tries to escape her grief with Detective Fenerman (Pete Ashmore)
The bold staging really stood out for me, I loved creative touches such as phone lines being pulled across the stage, dancing dogs, other child murder victims being depicted as dresses without faces and the way sex was depicted with poetic movement. The pockets of humour come from Susie's effervescent character and the use of flashbacks back to happy times, escaping the horror of her death. She remembers her first (and only) love Ray Singh (Karan Gill) with fondness throughout, and even manages to reunite with him from beyond the grave.  Susie is guided in the omnipresent Heaven by Franny, who struggles to deal with her willpower and determination for the truth to be uncovered. 

Susie speaks to another child murder victim 
Apart from occasional accent slippage and wanting to see Mr Harvey meet an even more violent end (I rewatched his death scene on Youtube for that), the production definitely exceeded my expectations. It's a real rollercoaster of emotions, and the tone is weirdly optimistic despite the horror of the subject matter. Susie's strength of character and unique viewpoint narrating from 'inbetween'  is the heart of the production, which never stops beating despite the terrible circumstances (bravo Charlotte Beaumont). Utterly compelling and stays with you long after you leave the theatre. 

The Lovely Bones is playing at the Northern Stage until 20th October 2018. Buy tickets here. Find out more about the Tour Schedule here (Birmingham and Ipswich).

Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes

*I received two tickets in exchange for a review*

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