Ella Reeves reviews Lovely Bones at Oxford Playhouse
If there is one play you go to see this year, this is it.
I have just returned from the stage version of Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones, adapted by Bryony Lavery and directed by Melli Still.
My mind was blown. I am not one to be reckless with my superlatives, and this was the best play I’ve ever seen. It is the kind of show where you are not thinking about when the interval is coming, because you are completely enthralled by the performance.
The Lovely Bones was one of the few books I found gripping enough to read cover-to-cover as a teenager. The book is set in Pennsylvania, 1973, where the main character, Susie Salmon, dies at the beginning, raped and murdered by a neighbour. The rest of the story follows Susie’s journey in the afterlife, as she watches over her family, while they deal with the aftermath of her death.
When I heard the production was coming to the Oxford Playhouse, I was keen to see it. I was curious as to how a stage production could plausibly portray Susie’s ghostly presence alongside the living world, and how they would deal with the book’s complex and disturbing themes.
How could it be possible to convey that one part of the scene is in the present, then it is in the past, and some characters on stage are in heaven, while some are on earth?
The situation and mood changes were seamless, owing to the actors’ convincing performances, the suspense-building sound design, the lighting, and the innovative scenery. The actors frequently changed roles, which could have been confusing or overdone, but they subtly conveyed the changes, so it felt as if as if you were in the characters’ heads.
It was clear that the other audience members were as captivated as I was. Through the contrast of lightness and laughter with darkness and gruesomeness, a full range of emotions were teased out in each scene. We gasped, we giggled, and we had tears in our eyes.
The stage play was beautifully choreographed, and there were parts where I was mesmerised by how the motion of each actor slowed and sped up, in sync with one another. I wondered how many times they must have rehearsed to perform it so perfectly. The live band, which transported the audience to the place and era of the story’s setting, was worth seeing in itself.
The scenery was inspired. The backdrop was an angled screen, which, dependent on lighting, acted as a mirror of the main act, or an illusion between the dimensions. When the actor playing Susie (Charlotte Beaumont) talks to the audience and “breaks the fourth wall”, you could imagine that the scenery creates a fifth wall.
There was no weak link to be found in the play, certainly not among the actors. Holiday, the dog, was played by actor Samuel Gosrani, and was clearly recognisable while playing a dog, while also credibly playing Ray, Susie’s love interest. It is notable that Susie never leaves the stage, and despite her screams to her parents, siblings, and friends, she is in a different dimension, so they never bat an eyelid.
Oxfordians are fortunate to have the Oxford Playhouse, an attraction of such excellent productions. I went to see the captioned show on a Wednesday, which enables people with hearing loss to enjoy live performances. The casting team of this production should also be commended for their inclusive approach: the actors were selected for their role based on their acting ability and suitability to the character, no matter their race or gender.