Paul T Davies reviews A Monster Calls based on Patrick Ness’s novel now streaming online through the Old Vic website.
A Monster Calls.
Old Vic Theatre, streaming until June 11
Watch it online
We are all grieving. For people, friends and loved ones, for routines, we took for granted, for freedom of movement, for the lives we lived before the pandemic. There are things we don’t want to return to, and we grieve that we may return to what has not been learnt or fixed. Brave then for the Old Vic to stream their acclaimed production of A Monster Calls, in association with Bristol Old Vic, a powerful piece adapted from Patrick Ness’s novel, a mediation on love, loss, and more importantly, letting go and healing. Thirteen-year-old Conor and his Mum have been managing fine since his dad moved to America, but now she is very sick, (cancer is never spoken but indicated), and his Gran, with whom he has a difficult relationship, has to become involved in looking after him. Every night, at 12.07, he is visited by the Monster in the yew tree at the bottom of the garden, who tells him three tales from when it walked the earth. When they are told, Conor must tell his story and face his darkest fears.
Director Sally Cookson brings her directorial style to the play with her usual visionary skills, devised by the company, who work as a seamless ensemble creating the chaos of Conor’s world. Here is a beautiful central performance by Matthew Tennyson, who captures the isolation, the rage and the vulnerability of Connor perfectly. It is an extraordinary moving performance. The production is visually stunning, thick rope creates the yew tree, with trunk and branches swaying and announcing the arrival of Stuart Goodwin’s ambiguous monster, bare-chested with a necklace of berries, he is The Green Man, virile and dominant yet also- at the play’s concluding scenes- benevolent and humanising. (It’s a relief that the production is visually stunning as I found there were issues with the audio, I really had to push up the volume on my TV to catch every line. The film is also mainly recorded in widescreen, and some close-ups would have taken us even further into the heart of the story.)
The story, and the production, takes its time in layering its tale, the parables told by the Yew tree only making sense in the second half, but it’s well worth sticking with. Dealing with such a sensitive subject, its fantasy elements do not shirk from the reality of Connor’s situation, particularly in one stunning sequence when Connor trashes his Grandmother’s house and she returns from an emotionally hard shift with her daughter at the hospital and she screams with grief. The pendulum of her heirloom clock has been used as a wrecking ball and perfectly conveys the turbulence of Conor’s inner emotions. The final ten minutes or so are a theatrical triumph, as Conor faces his biggest fear, and the Monster now holds him, a comforting creature that will walk with him the final steps to 12.07. It’s probably just as well I didn’t see it in the theatre as I wept openly, it is tremendously moving and very sensitively handled. The line, “Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary,” makes this a production for our pandemic times. A stunning and beautifully moving piece.
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