Old Vic, London – until 25 August 2018
Guest reviewer: Emma Gradwell
I was familiar with the storyline of Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls prior to this performance at The Old Vic, after watching the 2016 film adaptation. Despite this, I was not prepared for the emotional journey the story would once again take me on – and the copious amounts of tissues that would be required to mop up the resulting mess. Although a book written primarily for children, A Monster Calls contains some very complex themes – and they are all embraced in director Sally Cookson’s take on this incredible story.
Conor is 13 and his mother has incurable terminal cancer. His nightmares always come at 12.07am: a monster comes walking to deliver three stories – and then finally to hear Conor’s. The nightmares are visualised as blood-like projections upon a blank white wall, a system being pumped with chemo, accompanied by strobe lighting, loud dissonant noise and physical discomfort. Benji and Will Bower’s ethereal score helps take us on Conor’s journey from denial, through anger and fear, to acceptance.
The set, designed by Michael Vale, is stark, white and uncluttered. A stripped backstage, with virtually only ropes and chairs, is used to inventive effect by the ensemble cast of 12. The fluidity of the production relies on sharp timings. It seems almost implausible that trees, classrooms, crowns and cars can be created with only these props, but it is done with great effect. The simplicity of the set lends itself to the solitude of Conor, played by Matthew Tennyson. The actor manages to capture a very raw, real and believable 13-year-old boy. He often doesn’t engage with other characters, in the way a child in denial would not. The performance is unsweetened and plausible.
Selina Cadell delivers as a bitter and awkward Grandma, dealing with her own grief and not entirely sure how to help Conor. In the scene following Conor’s destruction of her living room, she gives us perhaps the most human moments in the production.
Stuart Goodwin plays the Monster, alongside a complex tangle of ropes – and although we are left in no doubt that the monster is a metaphor for the cancer, Goodwin offers us a complete arc to its importance in the story. At the outset the monster scares us with his booming voice as he shouts from high above in his form as a yew tree. As the story continues, he becomes closer to human as he walks on stilts, until eventually he is alongside Conor as he embraces him in a way we never see his distant father do.
This story contains no real heroes or villains. It is a brutal tale that focuses on the harsh realities of mortality, and our helplessness in grief and the emotional complexities of its process. This production tells it very well, especially in the quietest of scenes. A Monster Calls is not to be missed.