Bristol Old Vic – until 16 June 2018, then The Old Vic, London from 7 July to 25 August 2018
A few years ago, on first encountering Sally Cookson’s two-part Jane Eyre, I wrote that it was inches away from being her masterpiece. Now, with A Monster Calls, we have that show. A total-theatre instant classic, Cookson’s production thrills the senses and breaks open the hearts of everyone lucky enough to be in its orbit. It is a work still in development, with another week of rehearsal pencilled in before its opening at the Old Vic though it hardly needs it, this is a show already ready to conquer London and a West End transfer will surely beckon for a show that leaves its audience, like the best type of cocktail, shaken and stirred.
Patrick Ness’ novel slips perfectly into Cookson’s fertile theatrical imagination. Its split-focused tale of cancer wards and midnight hour fairy tales suits Cookson’s gifts, for genuine human emotion and beautifully intricate theatrical imagery. Supported by her usual team; set designer Michael Vale, costume designer Katie Sykes, composer Benji Bower and writer in room Adam Peck, she turns a tale, already a hit in the mediums of novel and film, into something inherently theatrical.
Each chord strummed, each rope climbed, every chair sat on and dispatched violently to the floor has been explored and developed for maximum theatrical expression. It’s a work thriving with invention, but all at the service of telling its narrative cleanly and letting the work’s heightened emotion soar out. It’s alchemy that comes off in theatre a lot less than those of us who attend regularly would like. So often invention falls bravely flat and too much is played safe in the hope of not getting found out. Not here. Its emotions are earned, its trust built up. I’m trying to think of any night I’ve spent at a theatre where its final 20 minutes have been accompanied by a powerful symphony of sobbing emanating from all corners of the auditorium as it does here.
The process she and her company work in, which entails devising the production in the rehearsal room from scratch, means the ensemble complete own the material. From Cookson regulars such as Stuart Goodwin and Felix Hayes to Matthew Tennyson’s school boy Connor, breaking apart as his Mum slips away from him, the acting is uniformly good, occasionally excellent. Tennyson looks painfully young and vulnerable in his school uniform, teenage hormones and grief combining to create a boy who is angry, bull-headed and sympathetic all in one. To make us care for Connor, who spends a lot of the work railing against the world and turning his back on everyone who cares for him, is a tough task, and one which Tennyson skips over with ease. Also tasked with a tricky role, Goodwin uses his lean muscularity to make Monster both imposing and neutering as all the best father figures are. His Monster starts towering above the stage on ropes, moves on to stilts and ends up at stage level, as his terrifying night visits, in which he tells three tales of witches and Princes, apothecary’s and invisible men, all begin to come into focus. Meanwhile Marianne Oldham brings courage and inner strength to the Mum whose prognosis gradually worsens, Felix Hayes brings a loucheness bumbling uselessness to a Dad with a new life in the States while John Leader is snakily vile as the school bully making Connor’s life a misery.
There are perhaps one or two moments that could still be sharpened before it finds its final form. The one song in the piece, although delivered beautifully by Nandi Bhebne seems a little out of step with the overall aesthetic of the piece, there is a moment of acting in a breakdown that didn’t ring true and the Monster’s final speech may be a little on the nose, although true to the book, if any of the audience had been fully paying attention to it through the tears. But these are minor areas of note, easy to sort out and unable to put a dent on what is a staggering achievement.
Cookson’s ascent has been steadily building. Her Cinderella, the best Christmas show I’ve seen, got the attention, her Peter Pan and Jane Eyre cemented it and sent her to the National. A couple of years have been spent working on commercial pieces that didn’t fully come off but by all accounts her Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, was a game changer at West Yorkshire Playhouse and this is another. All hail Sally Cookson. A director changing the game of what British theatre can and should do. Essential.
A Monster Calls runs at Bristol Old Vic until 16 June and then at the Old Vic, London from 7 July- 25 August