On the face of it, Alice Sebold’s complex 2002 novel about love, life – and death – doesn’t appear to be the easiest story to convert from page to physical drama.
Peter Jackson gave it a stab in his supernatural film adaptation almost a decade ago, garnering a mixed reception from audiences and critics.
Here this stage version, adapted by Bryony Lavery and premiered as a three-way co-production in association with the Everyman and Playhouse, marries fast-paced action with inspired design and clever lighting to create a vibrant and gripping rendering of Sebold’s layered story.
It’s December 1973 and schoolgirl Susie Salmon (a radiant Charlotte Beaumont) is brutally assaulted, murdered and dismembered by loner neighbour Mr Harvey (Keith Dunphy) – a crime which sends seismic waves through her family and friends.
Physically the spirit of Susie inhabits, in the words of Joni Mitchell’s song title, 'both sides now' as she mingles with those on Earth but from within the tightly-bounded confines of her own personal heaven, watching as the fallout from the crime slowly fractures her parents’ relationship and creates uneasy tremors in the lives of her siblings and schoolmates.
Charlotte Beaumont as Susie and Keith Dunphy as Mr Harvey. Photos by Sheila Burnett
In the Everyman’s close confines, the audience feels keenly the teenager’s frustration and belligerence as her attacker literally gets away with murder, while in a parallel narrative strand she watches the sexual awakening of her peers with a sense of desire, craving a similar intimacy and railing against a future snatched from her.
While the pace set by director Melly Still through a rollercoaster 100 minutes means some of the more nuanced emotional struggles – particularly that of Susie’s closed-down mother Abigail (Emily Bevan) – remain somewhat unexplored, you can’t argue with the sheer visual audaciousness of the staging as it unfolds on designer Ana Ines Jabares-Pita's set.
Bounded upstage by a rustling cornfield, the action is reflected in a giant angled mirror which concurrently - and cleverly - clears to reveal characters behind it, from Susie’s heavenly mentor Franny (Bhawna Bhawsar) to the sinister, ever-watchful presence of Dunphy’s killer.