Northern Stage’s joint collaboration to bring Alice Sebold’s novel to the stage works wonders, with production values comparable to the West End, and without falling into special effects overkill that marred the film.
Skip to: Under Milk Wood
It’s rare for regional theatre to try to take on the West End for production values. Even with Royal & Derngate, Birmingham Rep and Northern Stage and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse joining forces, productions on the scale taken for granted in central London are a risky business unless you can be sure you’ll sell the tickets. So an adaptation massively successful novel of Alice Sebold is a pretty safe bet to draw in an audience – or is it?
The most well-known big-budget version of The Lovely Bones is the Peter Jackson film – and many people consider that a disappointment. The Peter Jackson film can maybe be described as a version of Ghost, but with 2009-level special effects instead of 1990-level special effects, but that arguably misses the point. Both stories involve a central character who is murdered (in Susie Salmon’s case, raped and murdered) who lives on in the afterlife, but beyond that two don’t have much in common. The driving theme in Ghost is a hero desperate to stop his killer before he harms anyone else he loves. That theme is also there in The Lovely Bones, but it’s not the main theme. And the supernatural that dominated Ghost are only incidental here, with Susie free to observe the world but near-powerless to intervene. No, the dominant narrative in the story is a family struggling to come to terms with the worst kind of bereavement in the years to come. It is this, I think, that this adaptation gets in a way that Peter Jackson’s didn’t. Peter Jackson relies on fancy effects to create Susie Salmon’s own personal heaven – in this play, her heaven is the world her family still live in, getting on with their lives the best they can.
Adapting this novel is no easy task. Even making the right call over how to present a story, in my experience anything over 200 pages is difficult to fit into play-length or film-length without massive cuts to the story. There is, perhaps unavoidably, some sign of this here: if you don’t know the book, you will probably get lost as the play attempts to explain what the rules of the afterlife are. But that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is what matters the most to the story, and that’s what’s going on down on earth: a father determined to bring down who he thinks is the killer, a mother alienated by her husband’s single-mindedness, a younger sister who is in danger of getting caught up in this, and a much younger brother who’s told his sister’s on holiday. That was captured perfectly in Bryony Lavery’s adaptation, and keeps the story very faithful to the book too, from the grief at the beginning, to a light (of sorts) at the end of the tunnel.
Part of the reason this play has gone down so well, I think, is the way Melly Still achieves a lot more from a little more. The cast size is ten, not that much more than a typical regional play, but it feels like a lot more, with the vast range of characters covered by the cast with little confusion over who’s playing who this scene. Some decisions were real gambles – it was a very bold move to expect the audience to accept that an actor wearing a dog collar was now playing the family dog, but it worked. A similar effect was achieved with the staging, set in a corn field with an overhead mirror. With occasional scenes lit up behind the mirror, it was only afterwards it occurred to me this was a relatively easy effect to achieve, but this and other simple effects make play look on par with the production values of major West End shows.
I had a couple of minor reservations. The play runs for 1 hour 45 minutes without an interval, and I’m not sure why. Interval-free full-length plays can be justified when you need to ramp up the tension; here, however, I feel that it would have help to take stock of what was going on. Another 15 minutes might also have helped to better explain some of the more abstract concepts of the story. And for all the achievements of doubling the cast, I did feel the depiction of Susie’s youngest brother was unnecessarily confusing. The play takes all sorts of liberties with the race and gender of the actors and the characters they are representing (not to mention species) and gets away with it, but it took me a long time to work out Buckley is Susie’s youngest brother rather than sister. A couple of visual cues might have made this clearer.
But those points pale into insignificance against the achievement of this play. It’s always a challenge doing justice to a book of this popularity, but they do it. The production values have the same impact as the shows commonplace in central London, but it’s surely been done on a fraction of the budget. Most of all, this has been Bryony Lavery’s year at Northern Stage, first with Brighton Rock from Pilot Theatre and now this. She’s had a long writing career before this, but for most of the north-east this has been the first chance to see what she can do. On balance, I’d rate Brighton Rock slightly ahead of The Lovely Bones, with the former play’s stylish set, live music and characterisation of complete psychopath Pinkie edging it into the lead, but this follow-up does not disappoint.
Also showing: Under Milk Wood
The other person who’s been busy at Northern Stage this year is Elayce Ismail. At the start of the year she directed what I can only describe as an accidental smash hit: a new adaptation of War of the Worlds, originally intended as a training opportunity for some new actors, selling out the entire run and returning in the autumn. Now she moves from Stage 3 to Stage 2 with a new stage version of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem / radio play of a day in a sleepy Welsh village. But there is one big difference between this play and the last one. Apart from a change of location, War of the Worlds was a faithful adaptation to the story with broadly conventional cinematic staging. Not here. This take of Under Milk Wood does about every gamble you could imagine for a much-loved classic. And – flying in the face my advice not to do this – it works.
The first decision to make for any stage version Under Milk Wood is how to represent forty inhabitants of Llareggub on stage. Most adaptations would allocate the parts amongst a small to medium ensemble. Elayce Ismail, however, goes for a cast of two covering the characters, but not all of them. Some characters they play themselves, and others are played by voices played at various points in the play. In fact, this is a very multimedia-heavy play, with music, sound, wall projections and lighting cues playing a huge role in the production. It is fair to say that this take is very different from what one would be used to from more conventional adaptations, and as such, this version won’t be to everyone’s tastes. But any adaptation that tries something this different and makes something of it has my respect. In fact, I wonder if this production took inspiration from A Song for Ella Grey last year – whilst that play didn’t quite work out, it was very stylistically similar to this, and if that’s where any of the idea came from, all the better.
There are two highlights of the performance that stood out for me. The actors transition between multiple characters will, but David Kirkbride’s depiction of blind Captain Sea Cat was particularly moving, whilst bullying Mrs. Pugh was pull off to a tee by Christina Berriman Dawson. One thing that I suspect goes under-appreciated is the technical achievement. In small productions like this, there are a lot of ways this can go wrong – even if the technical effects work fine of their own, they can easily go pear-shaped once the actors are on stage. I gather this play – wisely – spent a week in Stage 2 getting this right. Technical effects are noticed far more when they go wrong than go right, so this deserves due recognition here.
If there’s one thing I’d have changed about it, I wouldn’t have tried to repackage this play as north-eastern. I accept that there’s no need to pile on the Welsh references and Welsh accents for the sake of it, but it’s a bit much to expect me to believe it’s a sleepy Northumberland village when one of the main characters is called Myfanwy Price. That’s not really a criticism of the production though, just a gentle nudge to Northern Stage (and Live theatre) that you don’t need to go overboard on Newcastlising every play for the sake of it. On the whole, however, if it’s been Bryony Lavery’s year at Northern Stage, then it’s been Elayce Ismail’s year too: two productions, one conventional and one experimental, both big successes. So Northern Stage has a lot of reasons to smile as their year draws to a close. 2017 had a number of disappointments; but 2018 has given them back their mojo.