Director: Sally Cookson
Writer in the Room: Adam Peck
Based on the novel by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea by Siobhan Dowd
Before her death in 2007 Siobhan Dowd had a story in front of her. She had a premise, characters and the beginning. Sadly we will never know Siobhan Dowd’s A Monster Calls. Patrick Ness was asked if he would take the baton and continue with the story. He was reluctant but found that good ideas often breed others and found a way to write his own ‘A Monster Calls’. Since the novel’s release in 2011 readers have been captivated by the story, which inevitably led to a cinematic adaptation. It’s perhaps the sign of a powerful story that it can take on so many genres and writers and still reach out a hand to the audience wherever they may be experiencing it and carry them away. Patrick Ness is extending the generosity shown to him and has passed the baton once more to director Sally Cookson who is breathing new life into this well-loved modern fairy tale.
Thirteen year old Conor is trying to live his life as a normal teenager while nursing his terminally ill mother. While running the house he attempts to focus in school, endure his bullies and wrestle with his own fear and guilt. Unbeknownst to him he has called out to the old yew tree outside his house with a need to speak his truth. The yew visits Conor and tells him tales from his long life. However, these stories aren’t as straightforward as they seem, the lessons can be hard to decipher and Conor must find the bravery to tell his tale and face the truth.
The production is beautifully enhanced with live musicians who remain on stage throughout. Seamus Carey and Luke Potter cover a range of instruments as well as adding affects to the voices of the actors and providing atmospheric sound. This is an incredible aspect of the production: the music always further enhancing the drama. Composer Benji Bower has created a wonderful and well thought out musical soundscape, going as far as to record sounds from real yew trees for authenticity.
As sound is such an important aspect of this production, the actors’ voices are often employed beyond their lines. Many contribute haunting vocals ready to be mixed by Seamus Carey. This means that all actors are fitted with microphones. This, combined with their incredible diction and the wonderful live music can mean quite a brutal aural experience, depending on where you are sitting. No doubt those in the balcony will be grateful for this clarity and amplification but it may be a consideration when booking if you have sensitive ears or young companions.
The stage is bare, a white backdrop and some chairs at the side of the stage are all that the audience sees, apart from a tangle of ropes suspended from the ceiling. The ensemble untangle and re-tangle the mass with seamless agility. There is beautiful ensemble work throughout as the actors take on other roles but come back to contribute to portraying Conor’s feelings and using the ropes to form the sprawling roots and branches of the fabled yew tree. Keith Gilmore is stunning in the role of the monster. His physicality and vocal prowess allow him to appear as a towering monster then a comforting father figure.
With such a wonderful story at the centre there are moments when the less that happens on stage the more captivating it is to watch. Occasionally there are too many different ideas at play which can convolute the story. However, with the unique music, bold staging and wonderful ensemble work Cookson has done justice to this well-loved modern classic.
Runs until 14th March 2020