Writer: Patrick Ness (from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd)
Adaptor: Adam Peck
Director: Sally Cookson
Theatre is an art form that allows the audience to make direct contributions – laughing, applauding or using imagination to conjure up scenes described in the script. It is this last aspect that director Sally Cookson exploits to the maximum in the stunning stage adaptation of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls.
However, although the play is highly imaginative the production allows the audience to sustain few illusions. Michael Vale’s set that greets the audience upon entry is clinical; stark white walls surrounded by utilitarian chairs and climbing ropes pulled to the side of the stage. The effect is like walking into a hospital waiting room or a gymnasium. The musicians who play Ben Bower’s eerie electro-pop score throughout are clearly visible rather than concealed. Therefore, although the story might be fairy-tale in nature there is a harsh undertone of reality – no matter how much we might wish to believe to the contrary it is not possible to overcome a fatal disease. Cook’s innovative blend of the fantastical and brutal reality successfully transports the audience into the troubled mind of a desperate teenager.
Teenager Connor (Ammar Duffus) matures early as the wasting illness suffered by his mother (Maria Omakinwa) means he has to undertake more than his normal share of the household chores. However, extra chores are a small problem compared to the bullying he endures at school and to his grandmother (Kaye Brown) increasingly imposing herself on the household. Worse of all is a series of nightmares that wake Connor from his sleep. Then, one night at exactly 12.07, a Monster (Keith Gilmore) calls promising to tell Connor a series of tales while warning him at the conclusion, he will have to reveal the thing he fears most.
There are few props in the show. With the exception of Duffus the cast act as an ensemble in addition to their named characters behaving at times like living props- stepping forward to offer objects or miming their shape. There is no pattern to the techniques employed –the play jumps from discrete mimed actions to the garish multi-coloured horror of Connor’s nightmares in an instance. This makes the show sound like a dog’s dinner but actually, the highly subjective approach makes it easy to accept the events may be playing out in Connor’s disturbed imagination.
Cook uses this make-believe setting to conjure a monster from a collection of ropes. Manipulating the climbing ropes tied around the stage into bizarre shapes – the twisted trunk of an ancient yew tree with its branches spiralling upwards. Keith Gilmore emerges from the ropes, climbs up them or hangs suspended like a demonic creature barking out stories in a strong Scots accent. It is an excellent performance with just enough humanity to suggest the Monster may be acting as a father figure for Connor in addition to teaching him life-lessons.
A Monster Calls is far more than just a collection of clever storytelling techniques. There is a strong emotional core to the play. It is an unflinching examination of the heart-breaking torment suffered by people caring for loved ones whose physical pain will end in only one way. Ammar Duffus catches Connor’s conflicted emotions perfectly; his stiff defensive posture suggesting he is hiding his grief behind a confused sense of denial. This isolated, lonely approach makes credible Connor’s actions such as rejecting a friend or committing a pointless act of vandalism. The play tackles an aspect of grieving that is hard to understand –people pushed to the end of their endurance come to regard themselves as selfish and unworthy. It makes the final sequence of Connor learning to forgive himself unbearably poignant.
A Monster Calls is a rare combination of raw emotion and excellent storytelling and a superb use of the theatre environment.
Runs until 29 February 2020