Writer, poet and journalist Tré Ventour unpicks The Lovely Bones at Royal & Derngate…
After being brutally murdered, fourteen-year-old schoolgirl Susie Salmon (Charlotte Beaumont) watches her grieving family (Emily Bevan, Natasha Cottriall, Jack Sandle, Ayoola Smart) from beyond the grave – and her murderer (Keith Dunphy), observing their day-to-day lives and balancing her desire for vengeance with wanting her family to heal.
Adapted from the much-loved Alice Sebold novel, The Lovely Bones is truly one that stayed with me past the final curtain call, walking past tears and tantrums, overhearing people saying they thought it was too short, whilst others couldn’t hold back their emotions, crying ferociously.
Much akin to the 2016 film adaptation of A Monster Calls (based on the novel by Patrick Ness), I was very much moved by the content and characters, as well as the aesthetic presentation, the sets (Ana Inés Jabares-Pita), lights (Matt Haskins) and sound (Helen Skiera).
And for me, the stillness of this production is what pushes it ever so slightly into thriller / horror territory, like Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs. Whilst Susie in both looks and character reminded me of Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster), her murderer is totally Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine). When you see these characters side by side, you don’t need slick camera angles to show the perceptions of size. On stage, it’s obvious; on stage, the human eye is the only thing that matters. “Most serial killers keep some sort of trophy from their victims” says Starling, and Susie’s murderer does just that, much to his detriment.
From what I have seen in my love for films and theatre, the book to stage transition can be clunkier than book to film or stage to film. We are told this story from the perspective of Susie’s spirit, ghost, spectre – she was raped and murdered and we witness the grief of her family from Susie’s eyes, with guidance from her amusing, dead mentor Franny (Bhawna Bhawsar).
Susie watches her family and friends unravel, psychologically – her mother’s loneliness, her sister’s sexual experimentations, her father’s obsession with her murder. Susie desires the life she has lost, craving her school friends and the capture of her killer. And as time plods on, she becomes the vessel in which her family become a family again, a means of healing a disconnected unit.
Throughout the show, I was enamoured with the tilted mirror that pushes us into a dual perspective: at any point, we are watching a play from two points of view, watching events unfold and seeing them reflected from above. Great.
Susie’s rape, and then murder, is portrayed through the quick removal of her clothes. When dad, Jack Salmon (Jack Sandle) breaks the snow globe, the cast exhibit big pieces of glass. One of the darkest moments in the play was not her rape or murder, but meeting her fellow victims, killed by the same man she was, depicted as puppets, shown via arms through garments of the fallen. Very Brothers Grimm, indeed.
This is the sort of show that I could watch multiple times: a highly animated adaptation of a loved piece of literature that doesn’t detract from the source material. It works as an adaptation and it works as a standalone theatre piece.
The best sorts of adaptations are the ones that you can watch without feeling that you need to read the original text to get the whole story, works such as the recent TV adaptation of Poldark, written by Debbie Horsefield, based on the Winston Graham novels.
This play is well-acted, well-adapted and well-directed. It just adds ammunition to the fact that regional theatre can compete with London. Though, there are those out there who would have my head for entertaining this idea!
Charlotte Beaumont slays as Susie. I endorse Beaumont as much as I love Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn, Lady Bird), who played Susie in the 2009 adaptation by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings). Susie (Beaumont) goes from the cuteness of childhood innocence to the stroppy teenager in her rage against the incompetence of law enforcement. “Sometimes heaven is a shithole, too” she says. Darkly, this got a laugh out of me.
Ayoola Smart (best in the show) won me over as child progeny Lindsay Salmon and seeing Karan Gill (Ray Singh / Principal Caden / Holiday), Natasha Cottriall (Ruth Connors / Buckley Salmon) and Bhawna Bhawsar (Ruana Singh / Franny) here as well giving great performance warmed my heart. They represented 40% of this ten-person cast and representation matters.
In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, it’s time both the theatre and film and TV industries to cast diversely. The UK is and has always been multiracial, multicultural and multinational. It was great to see Britain’s diversity on display. I’m all for casting the “best people for the job” regardless of race, gender and so forth, but the best people for the job were both talented and representative of this country’s melting pot.
“I’m fine with more straight white men on screen and stage but there needs to be a story-driven reason for it,” said nobody ever #representationmatters.
Directed by Melly Still and adapted by Bryony Lavery, The Lovely Bones is a bold move from the Royal & Derngate for sure. This is way leftfield, way out of the theatre’s comfort zone, and way outside of its MO. It’s not what I was expecting at all. Nonetheless, it was a surprise to be sure and a welcome one.