You’re riveted from the very first second of The Lovely Bones.
Shocking, horrifying and heart-wrenching this remarkable 100-minute stage adaptation of Alice Sebold’s international best-seller is nothing short of a masterpiece.
It premiered this week at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatre, ahead of a brief UK tour, and I sat on the edge of my seat throughout. I can’t remember when I was last so engrossed and moved by a new stage play.
Sebold’s thrilling novel, which mixes the supernatural with a sickening tale of rape and murder in small town America, has already been hailed as a literary giant.
And Peter Jackson’s movie earned an Oscar nomination for Stanley Tucci as paedophile rapist and serial killer, George Harvey.
Now it has been skilfully adapted by Bryony Lavery for the stage and it has lost none of its power. It’s deeply moving, tragic and enthralling in equal measures.
Director Melly Still has done a remarkable job creating a visionary production that blends stylish design with innovative staging.
The Lovely Bones starts with a truly shocking encounter as Harvey abducts, rapes and murders 14-year-old Susie Salmon, dismembering her and dumping the body where no-one will ever find it.
This isn’t a plot spoiler. It happens in the opening scene and it chills to the bone.
I felt myself clasping a hand over my mouth, appalled at the brutality, as Harvey sweeps the poor girl off her feet and violently snuffs out her young life.
But moments later we see Susie, in one piece, standing centre stage. She’s in Heaven and is uncomprehending, angry, upset and confused as to what’s happened to her.
Over the course of the next 90 or so minutes we see Susie a voyeur in her own family’s grief as they try to come to terms with their loss.
She does her level best to communicate with them, and bring her killer to justice, but is helpless without the ability to physically make contact.
Keith Dunphy is absolutely petrifying as Harvey, an inconsequential, ineffectual man who spends his time making doll’s houses and acting as a concerned citizen while plotting his next kill.
It is a terrific performance, and he creates, in Harvey, one of modern theatre’s most evil characters.
But it’s hard to single anyone out in this triumphant drama although Charlotte Beaumont, is outstanding as Susie.
On stage throughout, Beaumont takes the young teen from the moment of her extinction, through flashbacks to her first kiss, and to her fears, outrage and frustration at being powerless to stop Harvey from striking again.
The audience is absorbed into every nuance of this compelling family saga. Susan Bovell’s husky voiced uncompromising grandmother, who likes a few too many drinks, is well observed.
The parents – Jack and Abigail (Jack Sandle and Emily Bevan) – earn our sympathy as we watch them struggle to cope.
We feel the tension mount as Susie’s feisty sister, Lindsay (Ayoola Smart) puts her own life on the line to solve the mystery and we support dogged detective Len Fenerman (Pete Ashmore) as he tries to solve the case.
And we empathise with Susie as she sees those left behind getting on with their lives. She’ll never be able to make love to her English boyfriend, Ray (Karan Gill), or go to college with her friends.
The Lovely Bones works as a whodunnit, a murder-mystery, a spooky psychic thriller and a tear-stained domestic familial drama. I have to admit to being quite choked up by its final scenes.
The astonishingly clever mirrored set design by Ana Ines Jabares-Pita, coupled with some clever lighting from Matt Haskins, gives the small stage an eerie, other-worldly feel and the inventive and fresh direction from Still is a sensation.
The Lovely Bones runs on the Royal stage until September 22, before touring to the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool (Sept 25 – Oct 6); Northern Stage, Newcastle (Oct 9 – 20); Birmingham Rep (Oct 30 – Nov 10) and New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich (Nov 13 – 17).