Writer: Adam Peck
Director: Sally Cookson
Merging fantasy with reality, A Monster Calls feels destined for the stage. Based on the Patrick Ness novel, this Old Vic production was a hit on its debut in 2018, scoring an Olivier Award a year later.
We are introduced to Conor (played by Matthew Tennyson). Aged 13, Conor has a complicated life. Struggling to deal with school along with caring for his mum (Marianne Oldham), Conor feels isolated. A cancer patient, his mum is undergoing another round of treatment. She assures her son that is one of many options; but her cancer is advanced; this is a last-ditch, last-hope attempt at clawing back some time.
Conor assures his teachers that everything is under control. Routinely bullied by Harry (John Leader), Conor has no fight left in him. His mum sends for Grandma (Selina Cadell) – a bright but prickly woman; Conor’s relationship with her is uneasy.
With everything going on in Conor’s life, it is unsurprising that he is troubled by nightmares. Conor wakes up at 12.07am, every night. The dream is an incoherent jumble of sounds and shapes. We hear a woman scream.
One night, after being woken by the nightmare, Conor hears a voice calling his name. He dismisses it as imagination. The voice calls again. It becomes louder, more urgent. Opposite Conor’s bedroom stands a yew tree. Conor looks out of the window, and a Monster, made of branches and leaves, emerges from the tree. An ancient, mystical being, the Monster (an excellent Stuart Goodwin) announces grandly that he has arrived because Conor has called him.
Conor, on meeting the Monster, is less than impressed. His fears, after all, live in the real world. Intrigued by the boy, the Monster promises to revisit him. Three stories will be told, and then a fourth. It will be Conor’s story; his truth.
The stories emotionally resonate with Conor’s waking life, as he struggles with the severity of his mother’s illness. The Monster tells complex, contradictory stories – good and evil, right and wrong – that are not as defined as Conor imagines. They leave him confused – how can opposing ideas both be true?
As the Monster finishes his third tale, it is time for Conor to tell his. He realises the Monster wants him to relive the dream that has been dogging him, night after night. It is too much; the story goes too deep. Conor resists, but the Monster pushes him on. It must be told.
A Monster Calls explores the subject of grief with a depth of understanding that cannot fail to move anyone watching. Tennyson’s articulation of Conor’s despair is beautifully done; a sense of burden, that threatens to overwhelm him. The staging also helps us to focus on Conor’s emotional turmoil. A bare stage, but with a few props (chairs, slings and ropes), set designer Michael Vale recreates the sensory world of Ness’ book.
It may be based on a children’s novel, but A Monster Calls has a maturity that speaks to every member of its audience. A story of compassion, and acknowledgement that emotions can be fraught and messy, this production has a clear sense of purpose. It is one thing to explain difficulty to a child; it is quite another to let them work it through themselves.
Conor learns to navigate his reality through dreams and fairy tales; but as the story ends, he does not emerge into the light. The darkness cannot be avoided: instead of pulling away, Conor leans into it. The rage, the anger, the sharpness and necessity of these emotions. They are nothing to be scared of.
Available here until 11 June 2020