BWW Interview: Actor Ammar Duffus Talks A MONSTER CALLS
For those who don't know, tell us a bit about the show's premise
The play follows a 13-year-old boy called Conor O'Malley, and he is struggling to come to terms with his mother's illness. He's visited regularly by a Monster at 12:07am, who tells him three stories. Once he's told his three stories, Conor will tell him a fourth...and it'll be the truth... That's all I will say!
Did you see the original production or read the book?
I had read the book, but I didn't see the show originally. Maybe that was a sign for things to come...who knows! With our show, it is closely based on the novel by Patrick Ness, so in terms of preparation it was extremely helpful. I was able to fill in gaps and ultimately add things to my Conor.
Tell us about Conor and how you approached the character
Conor is a teenager who is not only struggling with his mother's illness, but with a deep-rooted secret that no one can know about. So there's not only an internal struggle for him, there is also an external one. I approached Conor through the novel first, just getting as much information from there as possible, and started to build and develop a backstory for him. I then thought back to what I was like at 13 and started to make connections as to how similar or different we were.
Is it a big responsibility to play someone like Conor, dealing with issues like bullying and grief?
The bullying and grief informs Conor and makes him who he is. Someone who is incredibly layered, but flawed at the same time...aren't we all, I suppose? Sally [Cookson] and I had a lot of conversations about him and the subject matter involved. Much has been said about how the novel speaks to children about grief, but the popularity amongst adults highlights a universal need to tell stories and speak our truths - just as Conor does in the story.
Are there elements of Conor and his story that you can relate to personally?
Oh absolutely! I think that's what drew me to him as a character. His connection and bond with his mother is something that resonates with me hugely. I was an only child for a long time, so my mum and I would do everything together. I experienced grief with the passing of my great-uncle and grandad around the age that Conor is in the play. That's to name a few elements - but this play resonated with me on all levels.
Is it tricky to balance the real-world aspects with the more fantasy/symbolic aspects?
It is tricky to balance the fantasy and symbolic aspects of the story, because I'm still working them out! The tales told by the Monster are so profound and relate so effortlessly to what's happening in Conor's life at that very moment. Therefore, it confuses Conor even more as to what is real and what is fantasy.
This is such a beautifully staged show, with the way it incorporates props and movement. What's that like to put together in the rehearsal room with Sally Cookson and the company?
I cannot imagine what this show would be like without the ensemble. They are not only the heartbeat of the production but they play such an active part in the storytelling of this show.
Sally is incredible in the way she works. She didn't want a complex design or huge amount of props to tell the story. Between herself and Dan Canham (movement director), they have meticulously choreographed the ensemble in a way that show what's going on in Conor's head. All the inner conflict he's going through whilst trying to control his emotions is physically emphasised by the ensemble, highlighting his situation tenfold! It's such an amazing way of working and I'm thoroughly enjoying the journey it's taking us all on.
Do you have any favourite moments in the show?
My favourite moment in the show is The Third Tale!
Are you looking forward to touring? Why do you think it's important to take work like this around the country?
I am very excited. I haven't toured before, so it's a first for me, and no better show to take on the road. Theatre is about making art accessible to everyone, and there is no show more perfect for that than A Monster Calls.
Is this your first time leading a company?
It is my first time! It's still very surreal to me as I thought this would never happen. I have to thank Sally for trusting me with the role and allowing me to tell this important story across the UK.
Why do you think the show struck such a chord with audiences? And why would you recommend people come to see it on tour?
I think the message it coveys is so universal that everyone will relate to the story. That's why it has such an effect on everyone. The novel alone has an enormous effect on its readers, and the production acts as a conversation starter for the audience.
People should come and experience this story as it's like an adult fairy tale which celebrates life. It's natural, honest and allows the audience to use their imagination to be taken on this roller coaster of a journey.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan