The Lovely Bones at the Rose Theatre Kingston review *****

The Lovely Bones

Rose Theatre Kingston, 26th October 2019

The Lovely Bones, co-produced by Birmingham Rep, Royal and Derngate, Northern Stage and Liverpool Everyman, is just to wrap up its tour in Chichester. If you saw it good on you. If you didn’t then make sure you sign up for what ever director Melly Still does next. After triumphs such as My Brilliant Friend, which you can catch at the NT as we speak, Captain Corelli’s Mandarin, her RSC Cymbeline, and further back her NT Coram’s Boy, it is plain she is the Queen of physical theatre adaptation. What with her role as Associate at the Rose, and with Christopher Haydon about to arrive as the new Artistic Director, and better seating, things are really looking up for the Tourist’s local theatre.

Now some might recoil from Ms Still’s insistence on the primacy of visual spectacle alongside the text. Not me. And not, based on a spot of vox-popping of neighbours post performance, the audiences. Or it must be said most critics. To which we must give many thanks to adapter Bryony Lavery. Ms Lavery is set for a busy 2020. Her 1997 original play Last Easter will have its London premiere at the Orange Tree, she is adapting Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage for the Bridge Theatre, her adaptation of Oliver Twist with Ramps on the Moon will tour, her adaptation of Oscar and the Pink Lady will take the stage in Sheffield and Theatre Royal Stratford East have chosen her musical version of Red Riding Hood for its Xmas 2020 panto. Not bad for a pensioner.

It is pretty easy to see why collaborators keep returning to her as an adapter of broad appeal theatre. Of course the subject and structure of The Lovely Bones, which is narrated by the now dead Susie Salmon, raped and murdered by a neighbour aged 14, may not quite fall into the category broad appeal. But Alice Sebbold’s 2002 debut book was a best seller and the 2009 film directed by Peter Jackson, whilst generating a mixed critical response, grossed around US$100mn. So safe to say it has “brand recognition”. And, whilst the subject matter is initially, and self evidently, unsettling, the way the story develops, with Susie torn between willing her family and friends to nail her killer and watching them get on with their lives and get over her death, is more compelling. In someone ways it is an unsentimental story told, deliberately, in a sentimental way. There is a Heaven but not that of Christian dogma, her family is broken by her death, but it still celebrates American family and community, it does operate like a slickly paced, artfully plotted thriller, but that was not the real point of its writing, there is some supernatural mumbo-jumbo but, obviously given the initial formal liberty the reader will take it in her stride, and the baddie does get his comeuppance in a melodramatic twist.

So there is enough in the way of event and character to justify a theatrical interpretation. And the mechanism by which Ms Laverty and Ms Still realise this is disarmingly straightforward, In the book Susie narrates whilst looking down on family, friends and the killer from her Heaven. Here Susie walks among them, although of course they cannot see or sense her. Until, of course, they can. Heaven, with its host of other victims, led by Franny (Avita Jay) who becomes Susie’s mentor, appears and disappears at the drop of a jump light, but mostly we are in the world of the living with the brilliant Charlotte Beaumont’s teen Susie as stroppy cheerleader in her own investigation armed only with conviction and banana yellow loons.

Ava Innes Jabares-Pita’s set is overhung with a huge sloping two way mirror, not a new conceit but one that works to great effect here, as we are drawn to see events from two different perspectives. Otherwise we have a bare stage with floor lighting to symbolise house, and with the busy cast carting stuff on and off stage (cornfield, clapboard houses, clothing) to advance the many scenes. As with Ms Still’s previous work, it is lighting (Matt Haskins), sound (Helen Skiera), music (Dave Price, whose playlist guides us efficiently through 70s and 80s) and movement (Mike Ashcroft) which generate the thrills through the brilliantly choreographed ensemble. Scenes begin as quickly as others end so that the whole story is crammed into less than a couple of hours and there are countless moments of theatrical ingenuity.

Of course with all this visual activity theatre-makers run the risk of scrambling the plot and cartooning the characters. Not here though. Ms Laverty gives us as much dialogue as we need, leaning on Susie’s punchy narration, without, as far as I could make out, condensing any of the key plot elements . And the characterisations, Dad Jack’s (Jack Sandle) guilt and grief, Mum Abigail’s (Catrin Aaron) withdrawal, sister Lindsey’s (Fanta Barrie) indefatigability, detective Len Fennerman’s (Huw Parmenter) entanglement, are all sufficiently well sketched to hit home. OK so maybe the various friends, mysterio-goth Ruth Connors (Leigh Lothian), sensitive boyfriend material Ray Singh (Samuel Gosrani), (and his No Nonsense Mum Ruana), and the additional composites created in the form of Sophie (Radhika Aggarwal) and Leah (Leah Haile), only just about stand up to scrutiny, but this is true of the book too. And the less said about hard drinking, homily wielding Grandma Lyn (Lynda Rookie) who comes to look after the family when Abigail leaves, the better.

Nicholas Khan as the killer Harvey screams creepy psycho from the off, but as with the rest of the production, and in keeping with the book, effect and momentum are prioritised over psychological insight. He is convincing mind you. Then again so is Samuel Gosrani doubling up as family dog Holiday who is, in that doggy way, immediately on to Harvey. Those familiar with Melly Still’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will know just what the actor as animal routine can bring to this sort of production.

Of course there are times when theatre is best served by two people getting deep and wordy. But its real power lies in its dynamism and in the shared experience, and, in this regard, Melly Still is, in my book, a brilliant practitioner. I am willing to bet that the version of The Lovely Bones on the night that I enjoyed it, (for just a tenner, grab those secret seats people), will have looked different to that presented on the first night in Birmingham. Which is exactly as I would want it to be.

Monogamy at the Park Theatre review ***

torben_betts-2

Monogamy

Park Theatre 200, 28th June 2018

This was a curious confection. Playwright Torben Betts (there his is above) has, by all accounts, made a very creditable stab exploring the comic social realism so expertly, and prolifically, mined by his one time mentor Alan Ayckbourn. Here is another to follow the likes of Invincible and Muswell Hill (also set in a kitchen). I hadn’t seen any of his work before, other than his adaption of Chekhov’s Seagull at the Open Air Theatre, which displayed his sympathy for the Russian master.

With Janie Dee in the title role, so superb in the NT’s Follies, as Caroline, a celebrity TV chef whose “perfect” life starts to unravel, this sounded interesting. Which, in some ways, it was. The problem is that it couldn’t quite make up its mind what it wanted to be or say. Nothing wrong with flipping between comedy and tragedy, this is after all, what the mighty Chekhov and all his subsequent acolytes have strived to perfect. The British middle class family, and specifically the British middle class marriage, is a perfect dramatic target and is guaranteed to put knowing bums on theatrical seats. (Remember the phrase “middle class” in this, and most other, contexts doesn’t actually mean those in the middle. It means those at the top who assuage their guilt, and give themselves room to complain about their entitled lot, by pretending they are in the middle. I should know. I am one of them).

In Monogamy though the comedy, whilst often very witty was just too broad, veering into farce. The satire was just too obvious, the targets too cliched. The tragedy too contrived. I am pretty sure this technicolour effect was what Mr Betts set out to achieve, assisted by Alistair Whatley’s direction,  but it left me a little muddled despite some satisfying individual elements.

The play opens with the effortlessly capable Caroline rehearsing in the kitchen of her house which, temporarily is doubling up as her TV show kitchen. After the show her new PA, the coked-up Amanda, very amusingly played by Genevieve Gaunt with sub-Russell Brand verbal strangles, breezes in and announces the tabloids have got pics of Caroline pouring herself out of a bar after a big night out. It is wine o’clock though and Caroline, glass in hand, starts preparing for a party to celebrate son Leo’s Cambridge graduation. Leo (Jack Archer) is brooding, indulgently left-wing, gay and looking for his parents approval/spoiling for a fight as he comes out. We discover that builder Graeme (Jack Sandle), polishing up the house for sale, is having an affair with Caroline. As if this wasn’t enough the second act sees the return of the utterly over the top husband Mike return from his round of golf, (played with blustering, red-faced, apoplectic aplomb by Patrick Ryecart), and the arrival of Sally, (an under-utilised Charlie Brooks), bent on revenge for her husband’s infidelity. And the action ratchets up from there to a blackly comic conclusion, a knife standing in for the Chekhovian gun.

So you can see. Sit-comish staples, farcical energy, a hotch-potch of targets. Mike is a banker. And a philanderer. Obviously. Caroline is a Christian. Improbably., and her faith offers no protection from the demolition of family and fame. Sally is depressed, conveyed with real pathos by Charlie Brooks, but drowned by the rest of the shenanigans. Salt of the earth type Graeme turns out to have not so hidden depths of compassion. Amanda thinks they are all w*nkers, a fair enough assessment in the circumstances though she is the very embodiment of annoying. Though it may not be her fault as, McGuffin alert, her Mum has just died. Leo and Daddy make up, sort of.

It is genuinely hard not to like much of the detail and the performances, and I for one would be happy to acquire the kitchen conjured up in James Perkins’s set, but all together it overwhelms to the point of underwhelming if you see what I mean. I am pretty sure Torben Betts will hit the theatrical jackpot (and he can write other, more serious fare). This just doesn’t quite cohere. Having said that I gather it is set to tour in 2019, after a mini-tour prior to the run at the Park, and I would certainly look out for it if it comes near you.