In 1973, a few weeks before Christmas, 14-year-old Susie Salmon goes missing when walking home from school. She’s been murdered by her neighbour and now she watches on from Heaven as her community pieces together the last day of her life and learns to navigate the future without her. Adapted from the 2002 international best selling novel by Alice Sebold, the Lovely Bones is about living and loving with grief.
Bryony Lavery’s adaptation is long and ambitious in its attempt to cover nearly a decade of time in this small Pennsylvanian community. It is equally encumbered by the many people she includes to demonstrate the wide-ranging impact of Susie’s (Sarah Maguire) death including characters like the assisting constable (Susan Jordan), Susie’s school crush Ray (Shiva Chandra), and Ray’s mother (Andrea Tan). The original novel was regarded as a sweet and sentimental examination of innocence and family, a tone that Lavery’s adaptation maintains but with far less subtlety.
Under Deborah Mulhall’s direction, the sentimentality of the story is amplified by the boisterous characterisation of the lead and her posse of quirky older women; her mother (Cassady Maddox Booth) who longs for freedom from the responsibilities of family, her alcoholic grandmother (Lisa Hanssens), the cultured and brave Ruana Singh, and her flamboyant Heaven processing agent Franny (Natasha McDonald). Amongst all these big female characters and the relief of watching the other young girls Ruth (Kirsty Saville) and Lindsay (Naomi Belet) grow up, though, was an uncomfortably voyeuristic interest in a dead child’s sex life that did not translate well on to stage. It’s one thing to empower girls to embrace agency in their bodies and another thing entirely to skip over more complicated conversations about consent and desire.
Unfortunately, the troubling script was the first thing in a domino chain of odd choices that undercut or disrupted Mulhall’s desired sense of warmth and love. Starting with the lighting design by Michael Schell, frequent changes between cool and warm colouring played up the story’s changes in mood and location and there was a real attempt to add dynamism and interest in a complicated design but, whether due to artistic choices or under-rehearsal, many lines were delivered unlit. But perhaps that was exacerbated by an overly-ambitious set design by Robyn Arthur which placed the action across three raised platforms symbolising the Salmon household, the Harvey household, and Susie’s perch in Heaven. The set filled the stage and spread the movement across the entire space but then included a fireman’s pole centre stage, creating a perfect blind-spot for the sentimental climax of Susie and Franny’s relationship. Additionally, the uncarpeted raised platforms meant there was more than the usual stomping on and off stage as actors moved with emotion through the space. Then again, this also wasn’t helped by the near lack of sound design from Sam Barnett. Other than a few spurts of Christmas carols or haunting synths, the production took place in silence, when otherwise a soundscape could have compensated for the flaws in the set design. It’s these kinds of disconnected design choices that one would expect the director to smooth out, reconciling with other theatrical techniques, but the pacing of scenes was break-neck with overlapping entrances and exits that frequently meant the opening of one scene was drowned out by the closing of another. Overall, the production elements continually seemed in opposition to each other.
Some glimmering successes included Brendan McBride with a rough and worn characterisation of Detective Fenerman that was easy and enjoyable to watch and the mural backdrop by Gareth Ernst that abstractly depicted cornstalks as stuttering, smokey columns.
Both Lavery’s script and Mulhall’s direction demonstrate clear interests in the multiple perspectives of the town and the cacophonous layering of stories that make up the sprawling impact of Susie’s death but the execution lacked cohesion and came across as more amateur than heartfelt.
The Lovely Bones is running at New Theatre from November 23rd – December 18th
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