A Monster Calls theatre review: ‘Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreck?’

A Monster Calls theatre review by Andrew Gaudion.

A Monster Calls theatre review

Patrick Ness’s celebrated young adult novel A Monster Calls has had an extraordinary life. Ness’s novel, who took over the book after his colleague Siobhan Dowd died from cancer whilst working on it, has been applauded for its mature approach to grief all the while being directed towards younger audiences. The story has taken new forms since its publication. First, it became a film directed by J.A. Bayona, who managed to use grand visual effects without sacrificing the heart and emotion at the centre of the story. Now, Ness’s novel has been adapted for the stage, giving this story a new medium in which to once again reach audiences and offer a cathartic experience unlike any other.

For those of you not familiar with the tale, A Monster Calls follows 13-year-old Conor O’Malley (played by Matthew Tennyson on stage), whose mother has been battling cancer for the best part of a year. Struggling with complex emotions, Conor unwittingly calls a monster to life in the form of the yew tree which stands in his back garden. The monster promises to tell Conor three stories at 12:07 on different nights, while Conor himself will have to tell the monster a fourth, a story which Conor is desperately frightened to tell.

What impresses out this story, in any form, is in its approach to grief and namely how one so young manages to deal with it. Many of the lines of dialogue remain intact from Ness’s prose (as was the case with the film, for which he also wrote the screenplay), due to the fact that Ness has an incredible skill in articulating the complexity of grief and the contradicting emotions that come with it, that we have probably all felt during times in our life where are loved ones are slipping from our grasp.

The dialogue expresses these complex emotions in a manner in which young people can comprehend, and Sally Cookson’s stage adaptation has faith in the truth of the words and the truth of the emotion on display to mount a production that is surprisingly bare and without too many bells and whistles.

The monster itself is brought to life on stage through the use of ropes dangling from the rafters, with the actor Stuart Goodwin wrapped up in its winding branches. It’s an impressive effect, one which is initially incredibly busy, with the ensemble cast also adding a great deal of manic movement to the proceedings. But as the play progresses and Conor comes closer and closer to facing the truth that he doesn’t want to admit, the effects and the monster himself begin to tone down and becomes less and less of a monster in a conventional sense and more the father figure that Conor lacks in his life, becoming uncoupled from the branches of the tree in order to better comfort and guide Conor through his grief.

Related: Evita theatre review (UK Tour)

The stage itself is largely a blank white space, with lighting and projections bringing to life various elements of the story, from expressing different locations to adding abstract backdrops to the different stories that the monster delivers to Conor. With little in the way of actual sets to work with (the only props used are clothing, chairs that the ensemble sit on at the side of the stage and the aforementioned ropes) much of the action if delivered through lighting, movement, sound and performance. The music is performed live by Benji and Will Bower, who occupy a small corner in the top right of the staging, using electronic drum pads, synthesisers, strings and keys to develop a score that is striking, haunting and beautiful, matching much of the movement and never over-shadowing the emotion of the scene and the dialogue they contain or the devastatingly touching performances of the cast.

Cookson and her team have done exceptionally well to articulate a fantasy world that exists alongside a reality that feels all too real. She is savvy enough and confident enough in the power of the story to strip back certain elements as the play builds to a gut-wrenching inevitability. There was nary a dry eye in the house come the final moments, with the play proving a testament to the strength and maturity of Ness’s story as well as the enrapturing effects of the production itself. A Monster Calls stands tall as a cathartic experience that demonstrates the power of storytelling to reveal truth and emotion in a manner which is profoundly moving. 

A Monster Calls theatre review by Andrew Gaudion, July 2018.

An Old Vic production in association with Bristol Old Vic, A Monster Calls will be performed at The Old Vic until August 25th. 

A Monster Calls (West End)