This review is from the Old Vic in 2018. ‘A Monster Calls’ tours to the Rose Theatre Kingston in 2022.
Patrick Ness’s ‘A Monster Calls’ is one of the great young adult fiction novels of our time, a devastating articulation of the fury that comes with grief, bound up in a nifty magical realist chassis.
It has already been turned into a film, which essentially treated the story of 13-year-old Conor and his mother, dying of cancer, as a kitchen sinky drama, sporadically interrupted by the gargantuan, CGI-generated Monster – an ancient walking yew tree, voiced by Liam Neeson.
Super-director Sally Cookson’s stab at turning it into a stage play so soon after the film is a tad audacious in theory, but to her credit she mostly nails it. Devised with her company, ‘A Monster Calls’ takes a while to warm up, but ultimately locks into the searing emotional clarity of the book more closely than the film did.
Despite the uncluttered starkness of Michael Vale’s pure white set, at first the production suffers from an abundance of bells and whistles. Benji Bower’s pulsing, ‘Kid A’-style score feels a mite intrusive, Dan Canham’s stylised movement a bit busy, and the initial introduction of the Monster as a mix of actor Stuart Goodwin, some ropes and Dick Straker’s (gorgeous) projections feels a bit difficult to quite take in. It slightly clogs the story of brave, bullied Conor (Matthew Tennyson) and his endlessly – perhaps dangerously – optimistic mum (Marianne Oldham).
But as with the book, the play feels more powerful as its intent becomes clearer. The Monster comes to Conor at night, always at 12.07am, and tells him three stories, each charged with knowledge about the terrible ambivalence of human nature. After the second, a traumatised Conor trashes his grandmother’s pristine house in a torrent of unearthed rage. The devastated, wordless reaction from Selina Cadell as his grandmother feels like the tipping point that moves the play from a series of clever ideas to something more emotional.
In the intense second half the fancy stuff is made subservient to the story and it takes on the same, almost merciless quality as the source material. It works meticulously towards an end we see coming, but an admission from Conor that we perhaps don’t. It is unflinching in its assertion that lying to children about death can be more damaging than the truth, and that the stories we tell each other cannot all have happy endings. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, then just brace yourself for tears.
The decision to effectively cast a human actor as the Monster is smart. Virtually ditching the ropes and whatnot by the end, Goodwin becomes the father figure Conor never really had, actually embracing him in the harrowing final moments. It’s less of a visual spectacle than the film, but has a greater emotional register.
A couple of early wobbles, perhaps, but never doubt Cookson, who absolutely gets this story to where it needs to go. Bring hankies, and plenty of them.