Readers, I must declare an interest in this production of The Lovely Bones. It’s a rather simple one: the lead is played by my old drama teacher. I’m therefore very biased. Sorry about that. Not that I should need to apologise: this production is brilliant. Though, ahem, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Nevertheless, there’s more behind my effusive praise for this play than the fact it stars a lady who once directed me the titular as James from the Roald Dahl’s story about the Giant Peach. Melly Still’s production, adapted from the iconic novel by Alice Sebold- if you haven’t heard of it, ask your Mum -has been touring Britain for the last year. Whether you know the story or not, it’s a play that strikes the audience before it’s even begun. This is because the stage has a giant mirror hanging at the back of it, which in a space as somewhat squashed as the Oxford Playhouse means it dominates the space. In some ways, this was a blessing, since I had great fun making faces in it before the show had started. It’s a clever piece of design by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita which Still’s direction uses to its full. We see figures reflected in it, which provides different perspectives on the action and gives a unique way of looking at the play. Seeing, for instance, chalk lines on the stage that would be usually be constrained, or the edge of the stage, gave a sense of the lead’s confinement which otherwise would have been far less apparent. Somewhat unsettlingly, actors occasional pass by behind the glass. This is especially terrifying when it’s the villain of the piece, Nicholas Khan’s Mr Harvey, and I’ll testify to being rather frightened by his spectral presence at times. I’m only 19.
The plot of the play follows that of the book (and later Peter Jackson film) tightly. I’d always had an idea of what the opening was like but it’s very effective. The murder and rape of 14-year-old Susie Salmon and her arrival in her personal Heaven is fast and shocking: it’s something that could so easily fall into being schlocky, but instead comes across as tragically, disturbingly tender. From her place in the afterlife Susie watches her family and friends grew up without her, whilst she tries hard to push them in the direction of her killer Harvey. It’s a story that balances the tragic with the comical, and it’s all done with a deftness that is by turns laugh out loud funny and nail-bitingly tense. A scene where Susie’s sister sneaks Lindsey into Harvey’s house is particularly frightening.
I obviously think Charlie Beaumont is great as the Susie, as I was as James from James and the Giant Peach, but she is aided by a talented and multifarious cast. Jack Sandle and Caitrin Arson are a powerful pairing as Susie’s parents, conveying two very different ways of dealing with their daughter’s death. Fanta Barrie was engaging as Lindsey and Leigh Lothian shone in the equally odd roles of Ruth Connors’, a would-be poet and mystical contactee of Susie’s ghost, and Buckley, her brother. Avita Jay also stood out for me as Susie’s companion in the afterlife, Franny: by turns spooky and reassuring, there are worse St Peters to hope for when we’ve kicked the bucket.
Collectively, a talented cast, is bolstered by a well-adapted script and very inventive direction. The soundtrack is also a blast, though I’m not sure the prudish lady in the seat next to me appreciated my bopping along to Bowie. Between upsetting her, bumping into the bloke next to me and obscuring the view of the older chap behind me with my standing ovation at the end, I’m not sure I made myself a very popular theatregoer. Oh well. I, at least, had a blast. Yes, I probably was always going to, and yes, I was hardly going to be rude about someone I know. But I came out of the show buzzing: for a show about death, this lively, funny and innovative little production is remarkably life-affirming. It’s now left Oxford, but if you ever get a chance to catch it elsewhere, it really is a must. I’m almost dying to go again.