Review - The Lovely Bones at the Royal & Derngate, Northampton

The Lovely Bones
The Lovely Bones

I will go out on a limb and admit that I'm not the world's biggest fan of the bestselling Alice Sebold novel The Lovely Bones.

Compared to her raw, brutally honest memoir Lucky, in which she vividly describes her experience of being raped by a stranger whilst a freshman in college, her first fiction novel comes across as slightly whimsical - despite the dark subject matter.

The story of murdered schoolgirl Susie Salmon, is told by the protagonist as she looks down on her undetected murderer and deteriorating family, from the confines of heaven. The 1970s plot is laced with the supernatural as Susie manipulates actions on earth, eventually inhabiting the body of a classmate in order to have sex with her former crush.

The unusual set up and gruesome subject matter are handled with surprising wit as Sebold explores the impact on Susie's grieving family and friends avoiding the cliche of serving up a whodunit thriller.

The 2002 novel interweaves multiple story strands from heaven and earth which may be why it has taken so long for a stage adaptation to come to fruition.

The Royal & Derngate co-production is the world's first theatre production of the American writer's debut novel, following a disappointing film adaptation directed by Peter Jackson in 2009.

From the opening flash of light the audience is immediately thrown into an unusual perspective which is cleverly executed throughout the 1 hour 45 minutes running run.

The use of mirrors is a remarkable feat of staging which emulates Susie's perspective from heaven whilst also creating height and distance enabling the audience to frequently see the foreboding presence of murderer Mr Harvey.

Charlotte Beaumont is outstanding as the outraged, exasperated Susie stuck in the afterlife who like her family can't let go.

Indeed Susie delights in the fact that "being dead makes you very popular" and inhibits the mannerisms of stroppy 14-year-old perfectly.

However the multiple strands, characters and celestial planes mean that despite all the innovate staging and moving performances, the emotion has little space to breathe.

Dallas Morning News critic Chris Vognar described the film adaptation as "distractingly busy, so in love with its own considerable craft that it can't stay still long enough for anything to settle in," and the sentiment also rings true of this stage adaptation.

My husband lost interest half way through and I overheard audience members describing the production as "too busy".

Even adapter Byrony Lavery admits it was difficult to write due to the complex narrative "like loads of paths through a rather beautiful and disturbing forest".

Director Melly Still has also chosen to focus on the sexual awakening aspect of the book to reflect upon the "seismic cultural and gender political shifts of the period", but this has to fight for attention amongst the various thematic and narrative paths.

This is an incredibly difficult book to adapt and the results are mixed. There are moments of real heart wrenching poignancy and delicious humour but like the book the exploration of bereavement, sex and the supernatural does not always prove satisfying.

The Lovely Bones continues at Royal & Derngate until September 22. For tickets visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk or call 01604 624811.