Culture Writers Frankie Rhodes and Victoria Wilson review the murder mystery play The Lovely Bones, praising the staging but highlighting the sometimes patchy plot and poor acting

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Content Warning: discussion of murder and rape.

Perspective 1: Frankie Rhodes

The Lovely Bones is not just a play about murder, it’s about instinct – whether that’s grief, anger, wonder or hope. The Crescent Theatre production captures this with the animal cries of a pack of dogs opening the show as Susie Salmon’s killer demands sickeningly, ‘tell me you love me,’ before the lights drop. What follows is a play driven by emotion, as Susie’s family attempt to navigate her death and their daughter desperately reaches out to them from the in-between. While conceptually intriguing, the production demands a great deal from its actors, which is not always delivered.

While at other times the use of the projector felt a bit clunky and unnecessary, it was an innovative choice for this extremely difficult scene

Sauntering onto the stage in a surprisingly whimsical manner, Susie Salmon is bright and hopeful, complete with yellow trousers. Even as a ghost, Susie is an ambitious and plucky 14-year-old, and Charlotte Tompson’s handling of the character was a real highlight. The scene of her rape and murder was presented with a combination of on-stage action, a voiceover from Susie’s ghost and an overhead projector. This intensified the experience of the victim, and the viewpoint of the repulsive attacker George Harvey was appropriately side-lined. While at other times the use of the projector felt a bit clunky and unnecessary, it was an innovative choice for this extremely difficult scene. 

Moving into a shot of the Salmon family, the set consists of a domestic dining room with an overflowing cupboard of possessions behind it, with an upturned painting, globe and dart-board spilling out into the room. This seems to symbolise Susie’s childhood tragically cut-short, also reflecting the chaos her remaining loved ones are thrown into. James David Knapp is movingly affected as Susie’s father, with a passion that unfortunately is never matched by his wife. Buckley Salmon (Carl Latham) is a convincingly confused child, while Lindsey Salmon (Victoria Youngster) is bold and charismatic. The audience is caught between willing her to investigate her sister’s murder, and fearing that she will be Mr Harvey’s next victim.

This production resists the typical romanticisation of the serial killer

At the centre of the action is George Harvey, who is portrayed by Oliver Jones as expertly slimy, meticulous and generally terrifying. Through giving a voice to the other young girls he has murdered – one as young as six – this production resists the typical romanticisation of the serial killer. The detective who investigates this crime, Len Fenerman, is frustratingly ineffectual, but actor Jason Adam also multi-roles well as Lindsay’s kind-hearted, dopey boyfriend. Even in a town wracked by grief, there are still people who fall in love and plan their futures.

Another such pair are Ruth Connors (Hannah Bollard) and Ray Walker (Ben Pountney), Susie’s frenemy and childhood sweetheart. Susie watches as the couple wonder how they can move on without the young woman they both love, with exchanges that are unexpectedly endearing. This production is at its best when depicting love and friendship, fulfilling director Rod Natkiel’s assertion that this is ‘a work about support, healing, hope and moving on.’

After a nail-biting cliffhanger just before the interval, the show returns for a second-half that is much shorter and much more disjointed. The characterisation fails to keep up with the convoluted plot, and the show may have benefitted from being a shortened one-act play instead. Still, in this half, the audience hears Susie’s compelling line: ‘these are the lovely bones that have grown about my absence.’ Taking on such a hard-hitting story is no mean feat, and I found the Crescent’s adaptation surprisingly touching and poetic.

Perspective 2: Victoria Wilson

Based on the novel by Alice Sebold, Rad Nathiel’s production of The Lovely Bones was cleverly adapted for the stage and struck the perfect balance between tragedy and comic relief, which ultimately heightened the tension of the show. The story follows Susie Salmon (Charlotte Thompson) who is murdered by her neighbour Mr Harvey (Oliver Jones), as she watches from heaven as her family grieve and struggle to solve her case. Though hindered at times by lack of depth, both in the slightly patchy acting and the plot which seemed rushed in the second half, the show had many profound and heart-wrenching moments.

As the curtain drew up, I was immediately struck by the impressive set. In presenting Mr Harvey’s house alongside the Salmon’s family home, with the bunker where Susie was murdered, placed between, the staging did a lot with the space available. It opened itself up to clever yet haunting parallels between Harvey’s slimy concealment of his crime and the Salmon family’s grief, as the audience had a simultaneous window into both the murderer and victim’s lives.

Thompson embodied the youth and innocence of Susie impeccably

The balcony, which represented Susie’s heaven, stood over the rest of the set, which was effective in allowing Susie to watch over and comment on the events occurring on Earth. Thompson embodied the youth and innocence of Susie impeccably. I particularly enjoyed how shortly after her death, Susie spoke from heaven in synchrony with Lindsey (Victoria Youster), emphasising their sisterly bond; yet, as Lindsey grew up and Susie remained stuck as a teenager, this synchronisation faded out as she became less able to predict and relate to her sister.

I appreciated the director’s use of a screen to show pre-recorded clips of Susie narrating her thoughts in the scene where she is raped and murdered. This not only allowed the audience to hear Susie’s thoughts during the attack, but also ensured the scene was poignant and unsettling yet not overly graphic or distressing. Before the action commenced, we heard a harrowing voiceover of the layered voices of the other young girls Mr Harvey murdered, stating their name, age, when they were killed and how. This was one of the highlights of the show for me, as it set a haunting tone and grounded the plot in reality, showing that what happened to Susie, is unfortunately horrifyingly relevant in the real world and not a one-time tragedy.

At times this unnerving tone was sustained through the show. The fluctuations from humour, with the comical appearances of Holiday the dog (Joe Palmer), to tragedy, created an eerie feel and raised the tension. Directly before the interval, this tension reached a climax when Lindsey entered Susie’s murderer’s house to search for evidence and was caught and chased through the stage by a hammer wielding Harvey. 

The other character’s reactions lacked realism and depth

However, the eerie tone was regularly undermined by the shaky American accents and moments of unconvincing acting from the cast. Though James David Knapp as Susie’s Dad encompassed the shock and anguish at Susie’s death immaculately, the other character’s reactions lacked realism and depth. They failed to encompass the utter distress and disbelief of somebody who has just been told that their daughter’s dismembered elbow has just been found.

I feel that if the cast had retained their own accents, they would have conveyed more emotion through their voices, making the show more convincing. Furthermore, the second half of the show was rather rushed, as the writer clearly struggled to squash all the events from Sebold’s book into the production. This left moments like the reconcilement of Susie’s parents feeling very surface level and out of the blue. That said, I enjoyed the ambiguous ending to the production which provided a partial catharsis for the audience as Susie finds peace yet her murder is never solved.

Get tickets for The Lovely Bones at the Crescent Theatre here!

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