This well-loved book by Alice Sebold has been adapted for the stage and if you thought you are prepared to see the show as you know the story – be warned. Bryony Lavery’s stage adaption should come with a mascara warning as it feels so much more powerful on stage. Set in the Royal rather than the Derngate, it provided the perfect intimate setting for the dramatic piece. There is no interval during the performance which is right and proper as it’s a dramatic emotional journey and having no break in the performance keeps the energy and tension building.
The story is told by Susie Salmon (like the fish) and she is a very likeable 14-year-old who doesn’t really like rules. Her favourite saying is: If they give you ruled paper – write the other way. She tells you she is dead and describes how she met her timely end. She reflects on events of the day that led up to her death. She was taking a short cut through the corn field when she bumps into Mr Harvey who is a neighbour. He shows her his secret den which he says he built for children in the area. She knows she shouldn’t go down. She knows her mum is waiting for her. She knows her dad would call him a character. But she is 14 and innocent and its 1973 – things like abusing and murdering children don’t happen in 1973. So, she goes down the rabbit hole to never come out. Watching this early scene in the show – even though you know she is dead because she told you before this scene – is very traumatic. Its not an easy watch but it is compelling. The very clever set of mirrors and lighting make it very impactive.
From that moment on you are willing Susie to communicate with her family even though you know she is in heaven and could have a restful time with anything she desires. What she desires is to be alive which is the one thing she cannot have. Susie watches her family mourn her death and how it affects them all individually. She watches them change and grow and how her younger sister ends up with a boyfriend – things she hadn’t experienced herself. It is obvious that the story goes up to 1985 but the music helps guide us there. (Tears For Fears and Blondie indicate it is no longer 1973). At one-point Susie calls out to David Bowie to help her. Space Oddity is played as she comes to term with her death and her new lighter being. David Bowie would be my personal idea of heaven – but part of me was questioning that surely a 14-year-old in 1973 would prefer Starman?!
Susie is played by Charlotte Beaumont and she is exceptional in the role. She is likeable and comes across as the perfect Susie. Exactly how you imagine her to be. She has a shining smile that lights up the room when she is happy. I loved her dancing and happy-go-lucky attitude. She makes you like Susie so much that you wouldn’t really tell her off for not coming home on time. When she is happy you are happy and when she is sad you feel sad too. The strength of a great actor is when you can touch another’s emotions in such a way and Charlotte does this with ease. – she really is phenomenal.
Mr Harvey is played by Keith Dunphy and I really hate Mr Harvey which means that Keith is doing an excellent job of being one of the most hated characters on stage…probably ever. Keith is great at switching between being a good neighbour and sadistic murderer. Keith gives Mr Harvey that balance between seemingly normal and someone you wouldn’t want to trust. As a mum myself I really felt for Susie’s mum, Abigail Salmon, played by Emily Bevan and her anguish between being a mum and living her life. Emily showed quiet reflection and how torn she was between being stuck in the past and moving on. It was an emotional performance. Jack Salmon, Susie’s dad was played by Jack Sandle had a much more aggressive tone to his grief. He was so angry that his daughter had been murdered and when he thinks its Mr Harvey he is like a dog with a bone. Jack plays Jack Salmon with such a passion to demonstrate how much he cared for and misses his daughter. It makes it clear that Susie was closer to her dad than her mum. Jack really gives his all as we travel on this emotional journey with him. Many of the actors covered two roles and most of the time you don’t obviously notice, but I did struggle with a grown woman having to play a small boy. Imagination is one thing but this did stretch it to the limit. However, all the cast are very talented and kept the tension up as we learn more about the story of Susie.
This is a fantastic show and hugely emotional. It is a wonderful piece of drama and deserves high praise for such an exceptional piece.
The Lovely Bones is at The Royal & Derngate in Northampton until 22 September and then continues its UK tour.