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Theatre Review: The Lovely Bones @ Birmingham Rep

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The Lovely Bones is a new show produced by the Birmingham REP, the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, and Northern Stage, in association with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, and is directed by Melly Still.

Images courtesy of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Tonally, this play was all over the place, as if the it can’t decide whether it wants to indulge the horror of the crime at the core of the play or the whimsical detachment of the protagonist-narrator. Once irony eats the horror-cake, you can’t then have the cake. Jumpscares involving a paedophile (who’s proven to be just a human) marauding our ghostly protagonist (who’s proven to be invulnerable to and separate from the physical world) were pointless in their lack of threat, besides being simplistic and obvious as jumpscares are.

Trying to discern an intended audience is a confounding task, and this comes down to tone again. Who knows for whom the bizarre underage-sex-scene, set to the production’s ubiquitous sentimental acoustic guitar (God knows they got that guitar out enough times), was intended. It was certainly more uncomfortable a viewing experience than the play intended, given the staging decisions. If, conversely, The Lovely Bones is actually aimed at kids, as all of the admittedly admirable loopiness and zaniness of the interpretation would seem to suggest, the basis of the book on the rape and murder of a child is incongruous to say the least.

‘Meandering’ isn’t exactly a sense one wants to create in an audience. It felt directionless. Maybe the sense of the production is meant to be a metaphor for the feelings of a family in an unsolved murder case, but searching for meaning and closure is quite different in a play – without it the feeling is unfulfilled disappointment rather than real sadness, and, again, that isn’t a feeling that theatre makers should necessarily be wanting to foster in their audiences. This isn’t Forced Entertainment, but despite being adaptation theatre, the ending felt like it.

The characters also seemed a bit cliché. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, this play won’t be for you, as a lot of the character-acting seems more like references to what the audience is presumed to know of the book than actual impersonation. That is to say, the acting feels baseless. Despite its flatness though, nothing seemed unbelievable and the portrayals were consistent if cliché.

An exception has to be made for Charlotte Beaumont as Susie Salmon, the ghostly protagonist-narrator. She has a surprising amount of energy and enthusiasm for an abused and murdered 14-year-old. This joie de vivre is ironic given the circumstances of the plot – especially given that she’s undead – but it did give us as the audience a relatable central character. Thank goodness, as this was certainly needed to encourage us to make an effort relating to the peripheral characters who oddly seemed comparably lifeless.

The set was an interesting innovation, with a giant mirror at 45 degrees to the stage, such that everything on stage was reflected above from a top-down perspective. The effect in most scenes was that we as an audience were looking down from heaven, which was pretty neat given the subject matter. It was also used to some interesting effects where people lying face-up on the stage could be seen as standing in the mirror above.

The main body of the review sounds a lot of criticism, such that the three-star rating will appear odd: this needs justifying in conclusion. What the REP, Northern Stage and the LEP very obviously have cracked is stage magic – despite seeming to lack purpose, everything that happens on stage (besides the jumpscares) is in some way imaginative and non-obvious.

Thought has gone into the production, to produce an unorthodox interpretation amongst other page-to-stage adaptations which form an on the whole often dry genre. Of course this can be framed inversely, negatively – despite everything on stage being evidently imaginative, it lacks purpose, and this is The Lovely Bones’ inescapable flaw and skill combined. Essentially, the REP, Northen Stage, Northampton Royal & Derngate and LEP have demonstrated here that regional Arts Council theatre has mastered its form, all they need do in future is apply it to more worthwhile content.

The Lovely Bones tour has now left the Birmingham Rep, but will be showing at the New Wolsey Theatre until 17th November. Tickets can be purchased here.

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