Culture Critic Phoebe Hughes-Broughton reviews The Lovely Bones at the REP
The Lovely Bones is a text about grief and how it impacts both the dead and the living, a theme so poignant that it seems the public consciousness is unable to ever fully let it go, having been revisited now three times over two decades. The novel was released first in 2002, and became an instant bestseller, followed by a widely acclaimed film in 2009, and now it has been transformed into a stage show that’s currently being performed at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s ‘House’ stage, as the fourth part of a five-theatre tour across the country.
This makes star Charlotte Beaumont the second ever actress to take on the role of protagonist Susie Salmon, having been played by Saoirse Ronan in the film adaptation, but she plays the character with a confidence matching Ronan’s, one that assures you of her experience both on stage and in front of a camera. She is perhaps most famous for her role in the ITV drama Broadchurch, which deals with similarly dark material to this production, but in both works she brings a sense of realism to her characters that stops them from ever feeling cliched or exploitative of their subject matter.
For a twenty-three year-old, she is also particularly adept at portraying such a young protagonist accurately; Susie is the epitome of a 70s teen, in love with Bowie and her school-hood crush and endlessly making jokes that would feel uncomfortable coming from someone just a few years older in her same position. Beaumont manages to make Susie so real that you can’t help but weep at her experience, while also retaining a sense of humour that prevents this play from ever becoming a full Shakespearean-level tragedy.
The treatment of the harrowing subject matter is something I was particularly concerned about going into this performance, as both the film and book show you (spoilers!) quite a gruesome murder within the first act, but the staging of the production dealt with this well. The most harrowing scene comes early on in the play, and is experienced only through narration from the protagonist and sound effects of the struggle between Susie and Mr Harvey. The play refuses to ever be gratuitous about the violence it describes, and thus could be a good way to introduce young teens to the themes of death and grief without overwhelming them.
This dark subject matter is also handled well by the minimalistic staging; when you first enter the theatre, there is nothing on stage but a row of corn plants at the back, and just a few simple props are brought on throughout, allowing the audience members to reflect their own experiences onto the production. Additionally, a particularly notable piece of set was the huge mirror spanning the entire back wall; this helped to greatly expand the perceived stage area, while also helping to visualise the boundary between life and death as it often turned transparent to show a view into Susie’s Heaven, or occasionally other characters that are outside of her viewpoint. For the inspired use of this mirror alone, this play is absolutely worth seeing.
In fact, the only possible critique I could have of this play is that the ending felt somewhat lacklustre. If you’re looking for a crime thriller with a great villain resolution at the end, this is absolutely not it, but, although the lack of clear justice disappointed me somewhat, this manages to stay true to the original novel and also continues the tone of realism crucial throughout the piece. Life isn’t always clean-cut, and this fact is more important to this play than a happy resolution.
So, if you want to experience a production that will both pull at your heartstrings and make you laugh out loud at the innocence of youth, I would strongly recommend checking out this production of The Lovely Bones, at The Birmingham Repertory Theatre until November 10th. More information on The Lovely Bones can be found here.