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Review: The Lovely Bones (Royal and Derngate)

Alice Sebold's novel comes to the stage for the first time

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The company of The Lovely Bones
© Sheila Burnett

Alice Sebold's 2002 novel caused a major stir when it was first released, flying off the shelves and spawning a sprawling visual feast of a film with Peter Jackson at the helm in 2009. Its transition to the stage has taken slightly longer: its world premiere arrives at Royal and Derngate in a co-production with Birmingham Rep and Northern Stage in association with Liverpool Everyman this month.

Bryony Lavery's adaptation sticks largely to Sebold's original text – starting with the brutal rape and murder of a 14 year-old girl, Susie Salmon, and following Susie's experiences in her new "in-between" heaven location. Susie watches as a ghost, unheard yet always present as her siblings grow up, her parents drift apart and her killer, George Harvey, comes to terms with his actions.

The novel works perfectly on stage – scenes occur around Susie, on top of her, in front of her, while she powerlessly observes, yet pushes to interfere with every fibre of her being. Rather than be defined by her victimhood, she rebels and tries to break through to the world of the living from the realm of the dead.

Though similar in subject matter to her 1998 play Frozen (which was revived in the West End earlier this year), Lavery creates a completely different tone and captures the heart of Sebold's novel here. While Frozen was largely a meditation on tragedy and perversion, The Lovely Bones acts as a powerful tribute to human endurance, an exploration of grief and how it affects different people in different ways. But it's also a touching and at times harrowing exploration of sexual experience – be it in the form of sexual trauma, sexual awakening or sexual liberation. Susie sees her siblings and friends slowly consummate feelings physically – desperately saddened by the fact she can't do the same.

Condensing a 328-page novel to 90 minutes or so brings difficulties – Lavery hurtles through the story rapidly and rarely lingers on moments of poignancy. Susie's (after)life becomes a whirling set of events, momentary experiences that flash before our eyes.

Keith Dunphy (Mr Harvey) and Charlotte Beaumont (Susie Salmon) in The Lovely Bones
© Sheila Burnett

But it's turned into a theatrical marvel by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita's set (as well as Matt Haskins' lighting), with huge, reflective panels arching over the stage (similar to Miriam Buether's designs in the 2018 revival of Machinal, though used more inventively here). The reflective surfaces blend the corporeal and non-corporeal – fallen snow on the stage reflects up to appear like stars in the sky. Heaven and earth reflect seamlessly onto one another – at one point Susie dances alone to David Bowie, while far above her, her mirror image dances to the same tune. It's a lingering and well-wrought piece of stagecraft.

Charlotte Beaumont's Susie, who spends the entirety of the piece onstage and trapped inside a chalk square, is a revelation – never forgetting the tragic context of her character, she nevertheless brings an unending optimism, a kinetic curiosity and childlike brashness to the role. She's helped by some sturdy supporting performances – Jack Sandle's father Jack Salmon goes from unquenchable, raging grief to a diminished resignation, while Emily Bevan's stoic mother Abigail slowly teases out a variety of levels of complexity.

What The Lovely Bones becomes is a joyous, heartwrenching celebration of humanity, with humour and tragedy nestled side by side. A coming of age story for a girl who never has the chance to grow up.