Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones was an international literary sensation. Loosely based on true events, it charts the aftermath of the rape and murder of teenager Susie Salmon, as told through the eyes of Susie herself who is watching over her family and friends from a version of heaven.
The book has already been turned into a film by Peter Jackson and now it makes its way onto the stage in a new adaptation by Bryony Lavery directed by Melly Still.
Sebold’s novel presents a number of potential problems for any theatrical version to surmount. So it’s worth noting just how well Still’s staging works conceptually and visually.
Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s design ingeniously segments the stage using a giant, tilted mirror that at times becomes translucent, allowing events occurring in different locations to be depicted simultaneously. Susie’s murderer Mr Harvey (Keith Dunphy) is shown cleaning up blood while the family receive the news that the enquiry into her disappearance is now being treated as a murder investigation.
It also allows the audience to watch most of Susie’s scenes in heaven in reflection, with events in the ‘real’ world playing out as normal. It’s a simple concept, but one that’s strikingly effective and used precisely and cleverly.
But despite there being much to admire here, the full emotional heft of Sebold’s novel is often lacking. Lavery’s adaptation runs at a quick 100 minutes without interval. Perhaps because of this, the early moments are dealt with tremendously swiftly and the grief and confusion of the Salmon family is barely dwelt on.
The few truly poignant moments are the work of a strong cast. Along with Charlotte Beaumont, as the murdered Pennsylvania teen, there’s a standout performance from Ayoola Smart, as her sister Lindsey, that movingly captures the remaining daughter’s loneliness and desire to atone.
Bhawna Bhawsar is also great as Ruana Singh, the mother of Susie’s school crush. Her exasperation at the racism of the police, and her dignity in the face of it, are palpably felt and create an interesting contrast with Emily Bevan’s Abigail Salmon, another mother frustrated by the limited roles and freedoms available to her.
Still’s production contains some stylish choreographed sequences, in particular an interlude in which telephone cords criss-cross the stage.
It’s not a perfect stage adaptation, but there are occasions when this emphasis on the visual pays off. There are some images here it will be hard to forget, like the line of different sized dresses, empty of their owner, and flapping gently next to a cornfield.