In the same way that Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy and, to some extent Harry Potter, sits somewhere between children’s and adult’s fiction, so does Patrick Ness’s book A Monster Calls. This 2018 stage version aims squarely at the same wide demographic and convincingly pulls it off in a thrilling show which emphasises the power of telling stories and how we use them to make sense of our shared humanity.
13 year old Conor is visited by bad dreams and awakes to find a monster has visited him. Formed from the essence of the yew tree outside his window it will tell him three stories; like a latter day Scrooge, Conor will learn much from these visitations and look into his own heart as he shares a story of his own. The monster is ancient and pagan but actually no more monstrous than the creature in Frankenstein. The real monster visiting Conor and his family is his mother’s cancer which is failing to respond to treatment. Conor’s troubled life is further darkened by the monsters of an absentee father, a cold, unfeeling grandmother and the daily ritual of humiliation and bullying which he undergoes at school. Small wonder he escapes into the fantasy realm of the willow man where his stories help Conor to make sense of what is happening in the real world.
For the stories reveal that nothing is black and white, especially other people. Conor learns that mankind lies to itself in order to feel more comfortable, that there are worse things than not being noticed, that the truth is malleable but will always be there. The second story has particular contemporary relevance as it is about a plague covering the land, the resultant death, and what a parson and an apothecary are willing to do in the face of such tragedy. The apothecary is greedy and grasping but has the knowledge and skill to provide the cure; the parson is unhelpful, even though he has the raw materials which would aid all. The parson conveniently changes tack when he becomes personally affected but it is too late. The parallels with our present situation are all too striking and add an extra layer of meaning and depth to the play.
Even without this extra element, the production is very strong. Directed by arch adapter Sally Cookson (recently her version of Jane Eyre was shown by the NT At Home stream – see here) and devised in collaboration with the company it has a raw power and energy which matches that of the original material. Seemingly it is simply staged inside a white cube which put me in mind of the design for Peter Brook’s famous interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is very little in the way of stage furnishings; mostly just plain chairs and props which are simply handed over from the sidelines as required. Dominating all is a series of vertical ropes which are used to form any number of things (such as a car) and which are brilliantly pressed into service as the willow tree itself. In this way the audience is invited to suspend belief and indulge the imagination in the same way as Conor.
There is an extraordinary central performance from Matthew Tennyson, apparently going on 30 when the piece was filmed but entirely convincing as an adolescent struggling with what life is throwing at him. His relationships with other human beings are tellingly delineated as he clearly finds eye contact difficult and his relationship with himself is even more problematic. Marianne Oldham as Mum and Selina Cadell as Grandma offer very strong support; the latter’s reaction to finding her house trashed by her out of control grandson is masterly done. Felix Hayes as Dad has rather too little to do but Stuart Godwin’s Monster/surrogate father cuts a terrifying figure and all without the aid of special effects. The ensemble work, as expected in a Cookson directed piece, is impeccable.
This is a fascinating and still relevant piece of theatre making which, by all accounts, outstrips the recent film , despite the latter having CGI to ramp up the visuals. If you enjoyed the stage version of The Curious Incident… then this will definitely float your boat. While the piece is not perfect – the almost constant underscoring tends to grate after a while – I would happily watch it again both to enjoy the narrative and admire the skill of the production. This is the Old Vic’s first archive streamed event and they have hit the ground running. If this is the quality of content on offer then NT At Home now has a serious rival to its Thursday evening programme; let’s hope they can both sustain the standards already reached.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan
A Monster Calls is available via The Old Vic website until June 11th. Click here
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