A Monster Calls is a stage production that has been just waiting to happen. Patrick Ness’ fantasy novel published in 2011 was adapted into a film which gorgeously mixed Liam Neeson’s voice with stunning CGI to create the Monster with a screenplay by Ness himself. However, after the success of The Grinning Man earlier this year, combining dark themes with exquisite stagecraft including puppetry (which is interesting as Toby Olie was the original puppetry consultant for A Monster Calls after designing those amazing Grinning Man puppets), at the Bristol Old Vic I couldn’t think of a better place to stage and create this adaptation.
A Monster Calls follows a 13-year-old Conor as he struggles with his mother’s terminal cancer, relationships with an estranged father living in America and an, in Conor’s view, overly involved Grandmother and the school bully Harry. As these relationships each come to particular states Conor is visited at seven minutes past twelve at night by the monster in the form of his Mother’s favourite Yew tree. As a brutely honest guide and story-teller, the Monster is the only one prepared to take Conor on a journey which will make him face his truth.
Firstly, I will admit that the main thing which drew me to this production was the curiosity of how they were going to portray the Monster. I have been so excited to see this that I couldn’t help looking at the rehearsal shots which revealed that, while there would be one main actor for the Monster’s voice, the tree would be created out of ropes which were manipulated throughout the show by the cast and used for various purposes. When translated to the staging of A Monster Calls this portrayal is genuinely ingenious. The use of the ropes throughout really fitted in the minimalist space, including the well-thought-through placement of the musicians, designed by Michael Vale. This space, and the use of the ropes to create the most important set piece, actually blended with Dick Straker’s projection design and, honestly, I have been waiting for a production that can lead the way in how to correctly use projection for the creation of set design for a long time after seeing it done poorly in the past. Combining these elements with Aideen Malone’s intuitive and reactive, not to mention at some points epic, lighting design truly created a polished production with the heart of creativity and innovation at the centre.
Matthew Tennyson’s portrayal of Conor avoided all of my worries. I’ll admit I was worried that Conor’s anger and status as a 13 year-old going through something tragic may be overplayed, however, Tennyson created a far more relatable Conor. His truth is understandable for his earlier character and his interactions feel natural thanks to the well-written dialogue which created feelings of humour, awkwardness, relief, stress and anger which never felt forced. There were also some surreal moments which could have easily been confusing to the audience but thanks to this dialogue and relatively simple staging they actually made sense in the context.
As I said I found Conor to be far more relatable and likeable than I expected. Also, as someone with a personal insight into the topic, I found the representation concerning grief surrounding the loss of a parent to be very relatable and emotionally moving. I also found the inclusion of different forms of bullying to be intriguing as well and a good representation in the short time frame given. Whilst I cannot personally speak on the specific representation of terminal illness or specifically cancer I do know that Siobhan Dowd suffered from cancer whilst writing the original idea which Ness based A Monster Calls on, unfortunately passing before it could be finished. From my perspective, I found Marianne Oldham’s portrayal of Conor’s Mum to be subtle and very well thought through in its emotional balance.
I loved Stuart Goodwin’s performance as the Monster specifically. There is a certain distinction between him, as the Monster, and the tree which he inhabits which allows for a particular freedom of movement and even humanisation which is required to really pull off the character in this specific adaption. I also loved the methods of inclusion for Goodwin’s portrayal of the Monster especially in the final scene which is one constructed convey all major aspects of the play to perfection and beautifully narrated by Goodwin to close the show.
Finally, the ensemble was increadible. Their fluid movement and climbing ensured that you focused on them but it was subtle enough not to overpower any dialogue or action. They all also ensured that there were no traces of their real-world characters in their story-characters or when they are acting on mass to represent Conor’s emotions. They have an impact on everything and it is truly something special to watch.
I will be honest that my only negative experience with this play came during my time in the auditorium as specifically an audience member. This play does rely on silence and quiet during very specific moments whilst dealing with some very serious topics. Unfortunately, during my visit, these moments were disrupted by the rustling of sweets, chatting and even laughter of the school children I was surrounded by. However, as I said this was specifically an experience in the auditorium.
Overall, I really could not fault A Monster Calls which so rarely happens that I just had to give it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️! I would give fair warning that, while I recommend not knowing any spoilers before seeing this play, if you are affected by portrayals of grief, illness, terminal illness or personal loss I would recommend perhaps looking into the plot by reading the book or perhaps watching the film before-hand to see if it is something you would be comfortable watching.
This beautifully constructed production is running at the Bristol Old Vic until Saturday the 16th of June and I would highly recommend grabbing your tickets here: https://bristololdvic.org.uk/whats-on/a-monster-calls
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