Sophie Adnitt reviews Sally Cookson’s production of A Monster Calls which is now playingt at the Old Vic.
A Monster Calls
In its opening scenes A Monster Calls is a difficult play to warm to. Based on the novel by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls has been adapted for the stage by director Sally Cookson and the company. The result is a strange, but bold piece of theatre – a mixed bag of hit and miss elements.
Thirteen year old Conor’s mother is quite obviously dying from cancer. Every adult in his life is skirting around the subject, he’s being bullied at school and to top things off, he’s started having nightmares that quickly develop into an ancient creature paying him a visit every night.
Although the source material is a novel aimed towards young readers, I was surprised to see many very young audience members in, with one in particular small enough to sit on its mother’s lap. Conor’s nightmares are portrayed in a very alarming manner, with loud noises and unsettling movements and projections. On top of this, the issue of terminal cancer is not one that can be easily explained to children (although I applaud Ness for attempting to tackle it for young readers), and this production leaves a lot of the plot up to interpretation, the effect of which is very likely lost on these smaller observers.
The opening sequence, in which Conor gets ready for school, is strongly reminiscent of drama student work and drags on for far too long, stalling the initial action, and in the shape of Conor, Ness has created a highly unlikable protagonist. Yes, grief does strange things to people and yes, Conor has a more than good excuse to be distant with everyone, but as a character we’re probably supposed to root for, he doesn’t compel us to do much rooting.
Thankfully things kick off in a big way when the titular Monster finally calls. Stuart Goodwin takes on the role with tremendous physical presence, a rich and suitably rumbling voice, and a tone that suggests he’s been around for a few centuries at least. Goodwin climbs ropes, walks on stilts and booms the monster’s true tales in a stand out performance; any time the monster is on stage is a true highlight. Selina Cadell is also brilliant as Conor’s interfering grandma, dry and witty and quietly devastating in turns.
A live band with compositions by Benji Bower lends the play a cinematic feel, as they soundtrack the bulk of the action. The ambient vibe helps the production stand out without being overly intrusive. Projections by Dick Straker bring the blank canvas of the stage to life and are used to wonderful effect. These are along with the ropes that start proceedings draped to the sides like a theatre fly floor but go on to become trees, monsters, car seat belts and more. A highly physical ensemble cast flit between roles, from Conor’s schoolmates to the monster’s silent minions. They too utilise the ropes with impressive strength, as well as shifting chairs and other props to create unnerving atmospheres.
The second half drops a lot of the gimmicks and the result is surprisingly affecting. As A Monster Calls gently, but firmly and inevitably winds its way towards its tragic conclusion, muffled sniffles can be heard throughout the auditorium during its quietest moments. The writing and the cast both thrive in the second act, redeeming any missteps that might have taken place in the first. This intense, yet oddly affectionate look at the complicated nature of humans becomes less of a show about grief and more of a show about love – as messy, graceless and ugly as it can be, but love all the same.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and you should definitely think long and hard before taking your kids to see it, but ultimately A Monster Calls most definitely lives up to its hype.