Please note: both the article and the production contain reference to r*pe, death and grief.
‘The Lovely Bones’ opened at the Cambridge Arts Theatre last night, having started its current tour in Birmingham back at the start of September.
The story, based on the bestselling novel by Alice Sebold (Almost Moon; Lucky) and adapted by playwrite Bryony Lavery (Frozen; Stockholm; Beautiful Burnout), has clearly continued to resonate since its release in 2002, spawning first a film adaptation in 2009 and now a play, which premiered in Autumn last year. The story follows fourteen-year old Susie Salmon (Charlotte Beaumont) as she watches her family from heaven after a violent attack during which she is raped and murdered.
It’s a pretty dark subject matter, but one that has clearly captured audiences over recent years – take the success of the second season of the BBC’s ‘The Missing’ in 2016 for example. I find myself wondering if there is something oddly voyeuristic and unpleasant in watching depictions of these horrible tragedies. The set only enhances this feeling, as during the bright flashes of light in the opening scenes, we, the audience, see ourselves reflected in the enormous mirrored backdrop – as if we are being reminded of the part we play as spectators.
The mirror is one aspect of a truly excellent set design – it serves both the practical advantage of having multiple levels for the staging to utilise, as well as suggesting some kind of impenetrable surface between Susie, in ‘Heaven’ and her family as she watched them on Earth. Other uses of the space were equally impressive – in particular, in one highly charged scene where the murderer (Nicholas Khan) pursues Susie’s younger sister (Fanta Barrie) round his house, simple chalk lines are drawn on the stage like a floor plan which the characters tiptoe around in a tense game of cat-and-mouse.
Performances were generally strong. Beaumont gives a faultless performance as Susie, managing abrupt and challenging mood switches, and portraying a highly convincing fourteen-year old – committing both to her naïve joy and energy in the brighter moments, while not shying away from the horror of her ordeal.
Fanta Barrie as sister Linsdey, Jack Sandle as Susie’s dad, Jack, and Leigh Lothian were also notable standouts, with the latter managing an impressive and convincing doubling between younger brother Buckley and the outcast teenager Ruth. Other instances of doubling were less secure – in particular the choice to have Huw Parmenter portraying love interests of both mother Abigail (Catrin Aaron) and daughter Lindsey (Barrie) was bordering on uncomfortable.
Overall, the weakest elements of the performance lay in the adaptation and the storyline itself. The pace of the second act felt rushed towards an unsatisfying ending, elements of which seemed more about convenience than real storytelling. Sebold deliberately avoids resolving the whodunnit by having our killer get caught, which, while frustrating for the audience, is potentially a more realistic end. To this end Harvey’s death – he is killed in a freak accident by a falling icicle – feels out of place. It is clumsy, convenient, and stretches the boundaries of belief. Sebold’s intention, to focus on the family healing through grief and Susie letting go of her life, is thwarted by the fact that we as an audience are not convinced either of these processes has happened. Perhaps, however, this is more of a problem with the medium and the difficulty of translating years of grieving into approximately thirty-five minutes of stage time.
There are lots of truly excellent elements here.
The set, lighting, and music are all extremely evocative and fairly seamless for an opening night. Performances are strong across the board, and elements of ingenuity in the performance – such as the use of Puppetry to depict the Coraline-esque ghost children, previous victims of the killer – come across well. Where the script was lacking the cast did well to bring commitment and energy, and the staging drew us into the story, at least during the first half. Perhaps the biggest problem was that the show itself seemed unsure of what it was trying to be. The more avant-garde and symbolic aspects of it seemed to hint towards some sort of message and meaning that we never fully grasped, while at other times it seemed fairly routed in the story itself – a story which ultimately lost us with a somewhat far-fetched and cheesy ending.
The Lovely Bones made a strong attempt to grapple with a tough subject matter, and while the conclusion of the story didn’t quite resonate enough to make it worth the trauma of the first act, perhaps in a way it wouldn’t be right to walk away without a slight feeling of unease, whether this was intentional or not.