BWW Review: A MONSTER CALLS, Old Vic Online
A Monster Calls is adapted by writer in the room Adam Peck from Patrick Ness's novel. It proves to be an excellent inspiration for a stage production which plays with both textual and visual motifs.
Conor is a 13-year-old boy living with his mother, who has cancer. Essentially her carer, he struggles to fit in at school, and to cope with his own understanding of the severity of her illness. Played by Matthew Tennyson, he is the focal point of this story, and is effective as a boy who is finding his place in the world as well as hiding his true feelings. I found Conor part-Adrian Mole, part-Evan Hansen at times, with a touch of Digory from the Narnia stories of CS Lewis, who also engaged with the unknown during adversity.
When, one night, the old yew tree his mother loves so much comes to life and walks from the garden into his nightmares, Conor has to face the reality of what is happening in the world around him. The monster (Stuart Goodwin), with his bare chest and bullet head, is a terrifying brute force who returns to Conor with folklore and fight.
Under Sally Cookson's direction, a small cast work within Michael Vale's white set, which bursts into life with sound (by Mike Beer), lighting (by Aideen Malone, utilising colour, shadow and perspective), projections, and circus props. The musicians (Benji and Will Bower) are located within a recess on the back wall - sometimes revealed, sometimes concealed.
A tangle of ropes represent the tree, a ticking clock and pendulum the passing of time, effects of smoke, flashes and discordant moans and music the state of Conor's emotions. He is confused, aloof, and at heart still a small boy learning to grow.
As well as Mum (Marianne Oldham, who brings to the part a sense of deep-rooted calm and quiet, loving resolution), there is Grandma (Selina Cadell, who embodies the severity of the reserved and tense woman who can't fully connect with her grandson), and a barely present Dad, who has a new family in the USA. A couple of teachers, a wise friend, a trio of school bullies, and the monster himself - a teller of tall tales and fantastic fables - round out the cast.
The sound and lighting effects are expertly employed to bring this world of uncertainty and change to life, although the nature of the recording means the volume control needs to be occasionally deployed to be able to fully appreciate the production.
Small details are there to be appreciated: berries falling from a shoe, a boy's bedroom getting progressively tidier each morning, a grandma topping up a cup of tea and opening her mouth to say nothing in a car, a monster stepping back to expose a gentle expression at his core. The warmth of curling up into another human being.
The movement direction by Dan Canham also merits a mention, with creative choreography of the ensemble in key scenes. It gives the piece a sense of poetry and focus which brings the audiences into the story and its more fantastical elements as actors become the roots of a tree, or a kitchen appliance.
A Monster Calls is presented as a family show, and children of 10 and above with enough emotional maturity to deal with the complex issues involved should appreciate it. I found it an involving play with an emotional heart and great power: a rather special piece of theatre from the world of fairy tales.
A Monster Calls streams on the Old Vic's YouTube channel until 7pm on 11 June
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan