Tuesday 18th February 2020 at Nottingham Theatre Royal.
A Monster Calls has captured many hearts since Patrick Ness’ novel was published in 2011 – a work inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd. From that debut to this stage play, the journey has been an impressive and important one. Telling a tough to tackle story through innovative approaches to design and staging, the piece handles the delicate subjects of illness and mortality as seen through a child’s eyes with insight and poignancy.
Conor’s mum is very ill. Conor (Ammar Duffus) knows this but allows himself to be pacified by well-meaning family. He’s afraid to dig deeper into the truth of the situation and no one is going to hand him that truth freely. While struggling with such an intense home life, Conor also has to face demons at school. Grown ups, from his teacher (Sarah Quist) to his grandma (Kaye Brown) to his dad (Ewan Wardrop), treat him with unprecedented leniency and it’s all a bubbling mess of mixed feelings and experiences.
So when as a child the world gets on top of you and you start to feel like you’re disappearing inside the gaping hole of your situation, reality is best navigated through some kind of abstract projection. Cue the ‘Monster’: a large, centuries-old yew tree in the garden. This symbol of legacy and longevity is a fitting guide – using folklore and surprising forcefulness, the tree (brilliantly brought to life with imperiousness and gravitas by Keith Gilmore) periodically ‘walks’ the earth to influence mortal matters. Through this mythical creature Conor is able to navigate the powerlessness of the situation to reach a harsh but necessary truth.
Duffus is an exceptional lead. He’s almost a constant on stage and gives an intense, moving performance which brings the most harrowing of childhood experiences centre stage with plenty of gravity. The scenes circling the antics of a trio of bullies offer a perfect snapshot of the hardest parts of school life in year 8. We meet scenes of the undeserving victim (Duffus) rejecting the well-meaning Good Samaritan (Cora Kirk) while faced with the cruel ringleader (Greg Bernstein), the halfway charismatic wannabe ringleader (Jade Hackett) and the reluctant one (Kel Matsena) lagging uncomfortably behind. Those sequences are deeply effective in their ability to capture the depth and breadth of cruelty children can master, especially when honing in on existing pain to exploit ripe vulnerability.
What I’d have liked to see this play spend more time nurturing is the scenes between mum and Conor. The connection and warmth of the relationship is never in question, but there’s little seen beyond tentative discussion of the unspoken truth of the illness which seems slightly lacking when compared with the time handed over to the school day for instance. Maria Omakinwa is perfectly cast as mum, giving a performance which demonstrates just how relentlessly protective this mother’s love is (also bringing an additional beautiful dynamic through song). With all good intentions this mum minimises and guards, forcing smiles through pain while exhibiting a determined optimism throughout – I’d just have liked to see more of the dynamic between mum and son.
Sally Cookson’s direction is slick and dynamic as ever and with Michael Vale’s blank canvas set design allowing for constant movement from the excellent ensemble there’s a sense of runaway action to the piece despite its expressive, lingering sequences. The system of ropes to conjure the monster is particularly impressive to see as it shifts into and out of recognisable shapes. Dan Canham’s movement direction makes the ensemble an influential unit which breathes and moves in perfect unison, functioning as anything and everything as necessary.
Designs are as slick as the direction too. Aideen Malone’s lighting finds great power in casting huge shadows of our characters, providing something of a visual reminder that the struggles are so much bigger than our characters. Dick Straker’s Video and projection designs bring a heavy sense of threat and dread to Conor’s various interactions with the monster while the aerial work (Matt Costain) of the monster offers visuals of emphatic power to the uncontrollable nature of all we see. Composer Benji Bower brings a discordant backdrop of sound (musicians: Seamus Carey, Luke Potter) which somehow feels like a crossover to another realm while the most brutal of realities plays out centre stage.
It’s not at all difficult to see how and why this story has touched so many. It certainly treads delicate ground that many fear to tread and in doing so challenges others to be brave and engage with the things we feel safer avoiding. Confronting rather than running is the surprising source of comfort here – a fitting conclusion for an important and insightful fight/flight narrative.
A Monster Calls is a production of The Old Vic in association with Bristol Old Vic presented by Global Creatures, Jonathan Church Productions and Chichester Theatre Productions. It plays Nottingham Theatre Royal until February 22nd 2020 and you can find tickets here. The tour then continues until March 14th 2020 and you can find information and tickets here.