Writer: Patrick Ness
Adaptor: Sally Cookson and the company
Director: Sally Cookson
Life is hard for Conor. He’s 13 and acting as his mum’s carer – she’s very ill and running out of options. His dad has made a new life in America and he’s bullied at school. When his cold grandmother comes to stay and his mother is readmitted to hospital, he feels that he doesn’t have anywhere to turn. Lacking the emotional maturity to process his own thoughts and emotions, he turns in on himself, shunning contact and offers of help and becoming increasingly isolated, invisible even. But preying on his mind is the old yew tree in their garden – in happier times his mother talked of it as an old friend, a presence that was there long before their time and would still be there long after they were both gone and forgotten.
Conor has nightmares that he eventually recognises as visitations from a monster, a being that challenges him to face his emotions and, maybe, to begin to understand them as it tells him tales of the contradictions inherent in life, that little is black and white. It becomes clear that the monster is the ancient yew that can, when called, walk and intervene. Can Conor find his way with its help?
The young adult book on which A Monster Calls is based was conceived by Siobhan Dowd, herself terminally ill at the time. She died before being able to write it and it was ultimately written by Patrick Ness, winning the Carnegie and Greenaway medals in 2012. Later, it was adapted into a film and now, by Sally Cookson, into a stage play.
This adaptation is a spectacular retelling of the story, full of visual impact. Michael Vale’s set design is abstract, with exposed wings, simple chairs and many ropes. A plain white backdrop receives occasional projections. Movement is carefully choreographed to suggest the storms in Conor’s mind, the cast twirling and twisting as one organism while the tree is conjured from nowhere with the ropes. All this is set to a throbbing and unsettling electronic soundscape from composer Benji Bower. The whole gives us a sense of the inchoate fear Conor feels in his isolation – and we begin to understand Conor and his actions.
Ammar Duffus brings us Conor, together with all his contradictions. This is a barnstorming performance as he grapples with his need to be seen and understood. His fear and bafflement at the monster and its tales come across well and we come to understand his frustrations and his responses. Keith Gilmore is a louring presence as the monster, stalking the stage and appearing in the branches of the tree. It would be easy to make the monster one-dimensional, but Gilmore ensures that this monster – while undoubtedly scary, maybe overpoweringly so for younger members of the family – has an underlying empathy with Conor and his situation.
Maria Omakinwa is Conor’s Mum, who finds lying to Conor and herself easier than accepting the truth of her situation. Her performance grows in stature even as her character weakens and eventually has to face up to the impact on Conor. Kaye Brown’s grandma is a no-nonsense character, trying to guide Conor to his own epiphany.
Greg Bernstein brings a swagger to the charismatic lead bully, Harry, showing an uncanny understanding of exactly how to be most cruel, while Cora Kirk sympathetically plays Lily, his friend whom he now shuns in his increasing isolation.
A Monster Calls is visually rich, attacking all our senses and is truly a roller-coaster of complex emotions, leaving one emotionally drained at the inevitable denouement. Truly a stunning sensory overload of an evening, well worth making the effort to see.
Runs until 7 March 2020