cast of bones

The cast of The Lovely Bones in Birmingham Rep's world premiere production. Pictures: Sheila Burnett

The  Lovely Bones

Birmingham Rep

****

Alice Sebold’s 2002 debut novel picked up a clutch of awards on its way to becoming an international best seller, spawning a Peter Jackson film version, he of Lord of the Rings fame, and now sees a world premiere on the stage in this compelling Birmingham Rep co-production.

It is not the easiest novel to journey from page to stage, after all our lead character, a teenage girl, Susie, beautifully played with suitably youthful angst and exuberance by Charlotte Beaumont, just happens to be dead.

And as ghosts go, she is a pretty visible one, acting, as in the novel, as a sort of observer and narrator as she watches her friends and family come to terms with her death, some better than others, and get on with their lives in small town America.

She is in her own personal heaven, but this is no heaven with angels and harps, or even any sign of God, this is just a place where the dead go, with the 14-year-old Susie welcomed by Franny (Bhawna Bhawsar) a murdered social worker, who is doing much the same job in the afterlife, helping the newly dead settle in.

We all know Susie has been murdered, not really a spoiler alert as she shuffles off her mortal coil rather violently in the opening moments. We all know who did it, Mr Harvey, and we all know where he lives and the question for the rest of the hour and forty minutes – with no interval – is simple, will he be brought to justice before the curtain calls? 

mirrored set

Keith Dunphy as Harvey and Charlotte Beaumont as Susie, showing the set's brilliant mirrored effect

Keith Dunphy manages that quiet, sinister evil that the wicked have about them as Harvey, a loner who makes doll’s houses for a living. There is nothing you can quite put your finger on, just a feeling that all is not right. Susie can see him, she can see the mistakes he is making and tries desperately to tell her father, Jack, the detective Fenerman and anyone who will listen it was Harvey.

Except . . . no one can listen. She is dead. Occasionally people can sense her, feel her, and whether it is her pleading or a grieving father’s intuition, her father becomes convinced Harvey is the killer.

Jack Sandle carries his Jack’s anguish and pain in a convincing performance. He becomes so obsessed he and his already unhappy wife Abigail, well played by Emily Bevan, can be seen slowly drifting apart.

The rest of Susie’s family get on with their life, much younger brother Buckley, has his games, and still asks where Susie is, while sister Lindsey, in a well-balanced performance by Ayoola Smart, discovers love with schoolfriend Sam.

It’s a busy life for Buckley and Sam. Natasha Cottriall has gender round trip as she plays the youngster Buckley and Susie’s slightly weird classmate Ruth, who writes poems and becomes obsessed with both Susie and the dead.

Leading the murder investigation is Len Fenerman, who wants evidence rather than suspicions. He is played by Pete Ashmore, who also plays Sam and, like all the doubled up roles, you would not notice it was the same person without the programme – at least as far as the human roles go . . . 

victims

Susie is visited by fellow murder victims in her own heaven

 

Ruth has a sort of trial relationship with Ray Singh, Susie’s boyfriend, the only boy she had ever kissed, with Karan Gill doing a good job as the bright student from England, with Bhawna Bhawsar, doubling up as his mother, Ruana.

Gill also shows up as the High School principal while Susan Bovell manages to be Abigail’s hard drinking mother Lynn, as well as the in feet first cop assisting Fenerman and a neighbour Mrs Flanagan.

If English school mate and school principal was not enough Gill also bounds on as Holiday, the family dog, the canine role, for him and a few other dogs that appeared, signified for some reason by an anti-scratch collar. It didn’t quite work for me

This is a sort of coming of age play, with Susie’s sexual awakening coming by proxy through her sister Lindsey, a jealousy as Ray falls, a little bit at least, for Ruth. It allows Susie to look in on her slightly dysfunctional family – and be able to do nothing about it. There are moments that are sad, moments of anger, but this is no maudling wallow, there is plenty of humour in there and even a little hope.

Bryony Lavery has lost a few characters in adapting the book, the constraints of time, but she has kept the essence of the story while director Melly Still manages to build the tension nicely. We all know who the killer is so this is no whodunit, more a will he get away with it.

Star of the show is Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s design. We open with Franny painting a large square on the floor, which becomes Susie’s world until she comes to terms with her new life, or in this case death. Her murder was at dusk in a cornfield, so the darkened rear of the stage is symbolic stalks of corn, but the simple set is lifted to another plane by an angled flexible mirrored sheet, thin enough to act as a scrim, which reflects the stage below. So, as an audience, we see the action on stage, and above we see the action as if we are looking down vertically on a world below, almost like Susie looking down on her lost world.

There are platforms above the stage at the rear so we can see added scenes in the background, such as Harvey counting his trophies, all aided by clever lighting from Matt Haskins while Helen Skiera’s sound has the volume to shock or the gentleness to soothe with some original music from Dave Price and plenty of well known tracks from the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Talking Heads, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Tears for Fears and Blondie, while Ruth sings us a gentle 500 miles in the background.

I have never read the book, but that hardly matters as this is a stand alone, fast-moving drama. A cast of ten bring the story to life carrying you along at a cracking pace so the time flies by to an ending which . . . let’s just say it doesn’t disappoint or leave you feeling let down. You get plenty to think about in return for 100 minutes of your life. This world premiere production runs to 10-11-18

Roger Clarke

31-10-18 

Index page Rep Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre