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‘It means very well… but it’s a heavy evening’: A MONSTER CALLS – Old Vic ★★★

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Old Vic, London – until 25 August 2018

This is billed for ten years old or more, and its protagonist is a boy of 13. But be warned: this Old Vic young adult summer special is no cosy Lorax. It starts with a nightmare and ends with a deathbed. In between come plunging, flashing, fiery, black night terrors and a voice at the dark midnight window calling the boy Conor by name. His mother has cancer, clearly terminal though nobody is admitting it or letting him prepare. To aggravate his plight, his Dad is an oaf who has run off to America with someone called Stefanie and had a new baby. By day Conor is relentlessly bullied at school, at home his Granny is a bossyboots he dreads living with.

For 30 years or more a series of little books by “Althea” specialised in titles like “I have Cancer”, “I use a Wheelchair”, “My Two Families”, “Visiting the Dentist”, etc. Useful for families facing a crisis, well respected, but giving rise to the unkind observation that any middle-class child seeing the A-word on a cover knew that some bloody awful thing was about to happen.

Patrick Ness’ novel is a subtler production, having won both the Carnegie and the Greenaway medals, and I cannot fault this ensemble adaptation under Sally Cookson, who so brilliantly evoked Jane Eyre in scaffolding at Bristol and the NT. This time she has Michael Vale design a set of ropes dangling from high above, skilfully manipulated by the ensemble into a great yew tree of which the Monster is the ruling, terrifying, remorselessly storytelling spirit. He specialises in subverting apparent fairytale morals into the direction of ambiguity and ethical complication, preparing Conor for there being no happy ending.

Matthew Tennyson, who I have  been approving of no end ever since Flare Path, carries with intensity and honesty the emotional role of Conor, Stuart Goodwin is a burly, wrestlerish Monster, Marianne Oldham the mother and Selina Cadell wonderfully solid as the problematic posh  Grandma.

All step in and out of the ensemble , and there’s a nice Cookson touch in the domestic scenes.  Conor dresses for school and does the housework for his weakened Mum, and the ensemble in chairs at the side chuck his socks and blazer on the floor and hand him kettles or plates with a blank noncommittal stare. It expresses his lonely tension and predicament: even the house is not connecting with him any more. Except for the big old yew and its bullying spirit…

So, excellently done. And the final message is strong and subtle and should make any family  think twice about inflicting  obtuse optimism on children, and failing to let them admit their darker thoughts .  Yet as a play there is something  too laden about it. The school is exaggeratedly feral, ineffectual teachers with no ability or will  to tackle extreme bullying or help Conor.   The father on his brief visits is cartoonishly useless too, with references to his quack  crystal-healer partner in America.   Wit or defiance could have lightened the script and doesn’t,  though Tennyson brings  strong teenage reality to the boy.  It may do service to children  in tragic circumstances and their friends, so good luck to it.   It means very well.    But it’s a heavy evening.

Rating three

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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