I didn’t quite know what to expect as I took my seat for The Lovely Bones at Kingston’s Rose Theatre.
All I knew of Alice Sebold’s novel up to this point was from watching the 2009 film adaptation many years ago.
That was a fairly traumatising experience to say the least, and I couldn’t look at Stanley Tucci in the same way for a very long time.
So I was pleasantly surprised (and a little bemused) to discover that Bryony Lavery’s adaptation for the stage was equally as funny and uplifting as it was distressing and harrowing.
The Lovely Bones tells the story of Susie Salmon, a 14-year-old girl who is brutally raped and murdered by her serial killer neighbour George Harvey.
Trapped in a heaven that is less than ideal, Susie is desperate to reach her family and help them both in solving her murder and coming to terms with their grief.
You can almost hear Belinda Carlisle singing Susie’s line: “Sometimes Heaven is a shithole too.”
The Birmingham Repertory Theatre production, directed by Rose Associate Artist Melly Still, appears to take a lot of inspiration from the National Theatre’s acclaimed production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
The show relies heavily on its technical elements, with clever staging and lighting combined with actors physically drawing on the stage and a huge mirror suspended above it.
On top of this multi-roling and puppetry are used to excellent effect.
The resulting performance is immersive, fascinating and inspired.
It is incredibly difficult to take sombre and upsetting material and transform it into a play where audience members come out smiling.
The shocking, disturbing elements are scattered throughout the production, and yet at its heart the show is somehow funny and joyous.
It was bizarre to recoil in horror at a young girl’s disembodied piercing scream one minute and then laugh at one of Susie’s witty quips the next.
This mix of humour mixed in with tragedy is jarring to say the least, but somehow it absolutely works.
The play’s uplifting nature becomes increasingly apparent as we realise that after death life goes on, and it is necessary to learn how to laugh again after traumatic experiences.
It is clear to see why Charlotte Beaumont has been brought back as Susie Salmon for this tour.
Her youthful voice and appearance are utterly convincing, and Beaumont’s bubbly yet blunt approach to the character is needed to guide the audience through her troubling tale.
Nicholas Khan plays a superb and very sinister Mr Harvey.
A modern audience would take one look at him and decide he was far too creepy to engage with but, as Susie tells us, this is 1970’s Pennsylvania – a time when people didn’t think this kind of thing happened.
His menacing expression, combined with the frequent use of lighting to illuminate him from beneath, is terrifying and highly effective.
In fact the entire cast shines in this production, and it is difficult to single out individuals in such a strong ensemble performance.
Jack Sandle’s grief is heart-breaking as he returns to play Susie’s father Jack Salmon.
Leigh Lothian and Samuel Gosrani are fantastic multi-roling as Ruth/Buckley and Ray/Holiday the family dog, respectively.
Fanta Barrie is stunning as Susie’s vulnerable younger sister Lindsey.
The cast hold so much power over the audience that there were moments of stifling and deafening silence where not a single noise was heard across the auditorium.
This kind of success is hard to achieve but The Lovely Bones ensemble seem to do it with ease.
An intriguing script and great visuals make this production a pleasing experience, even in the face of horrific subject matter.
Bryony Lavery and the talented cast do a fantastic job of bringing Susie’s story to life, leaving the audience feeling uplifted but in the strangest way.
The Lovely Bones plays at the Rose Theatre Kingston until Saturday October 26, 2019.
Feature image: Pamela Raith photography.