Katrina Bennett

A monster skypes

As a teenager, everyone has those moments when you feel that the world is against you. This is more than true for Conor, the protagonist of A Monster Calls. The thirteen-year-old lad experiences more sorrow than is fair for his age. While he desperately tries to hold it together to convince everyone that he’s coping, the yew tree monster who begins to visit Conor at 12:07 each night seems determined to prove the opposite and to force Conor to face his biggest fear.

This stunning Old Vic production, devised from the best-selling YA novel by Patrick Ness, hits so many emotional notes; it left me in bits. In its honest depiction of illness and grief, A Monster Calls is a timely production to stream. Conor, while coming to terms with his mum’s cancer, must struggle with school bullies, falling out with his best friend, and his dad moving to America with his new family. It is a lot to tackle in under two hours, but the play is well-paced and manages to explore these issues with sensitivity and depth. The yew tree monster, who tells Conor a series of fable-like stories, is an intelligent vehicle for delving into Conor’s emotional journey. The play interlinks the make-believe and the painfully real, constructing a narrative that resonates deeply with all ages.

Director Sally Cookson’s talent for devising physical theatre creates a visually stunning production. Matthew Tennyson and Stuart Goodwin are excellent as Conor and the Monster respectively. The rest of the cast shift between speaking roles and the ever-present ensemble who remain on set throughout. The ensemble builds the ambience of each scene: one moment, they are writhing in pain at Conor’s nightmares, the next they are handing Conor his shreddies and milk for breakfast or slouching in school blazers as his classmates.

At the centre of Cookson’s visual concept are thick cords of rope which hang from the ceiling. Goodwin descends among these as the imposing monster, while the ensemble manipulates the ropes to form everything from the yew tree’s thick gnarled trunk, to a car’s seatbelts and steering wheel. It is a production well suited to virtual viewing, since the ensemble often move as one rather than spiralling off into smaller groups.

Projections and sound create an intense atmosphere on an otherwise simple set. During Conor’s nightmares, projections depict swirling blood and raging fire. Quieter, more delicate moments come in the form of Conor’s slow, unwinding descent into the Monster’s arms against a vivid wash of blue. Benji Bower’s music blends perfectly with Cookson’s visuals, mixing synths and electronics with chordal piano progressions which rise to crescendos, pulse in the background then softly wash away

Tennyson shows astounding talent as Conor. Beneath the surface is a constant simmering of frustration that eventually ruptures into a raw anger as Conor inflicts destruction and injury. The relationship between Conor and his mum (Marianne Oldham) is tenderly performed and becomes more heart-breaking as her illness progresses. Audiences will find themselves haunted by the image of Oldham fiercely gripping Conor as she desperately tries to communicate through a fug of morphine and pain. John Leader is notable as a stand-out ensemble member, most particularly in the swaggering confidence and authority he brings to the role of school bully, Harry.

A Monster Calls is the type of production that leaves audiences fumbling for tissues and wiping away tears for a standing ovation. In your own home, at a distance from many people you love, the play cuts even deeper. The play’s emotional intelligence defines it, successfully exploring complex issues in a way that’s both accessible to teens and profoundly touching for adults. A combination of compelling physical theatre, magnificent set design, and a talented cast, A Monster Calls is a theatrical gem.

Words by Katrina Bennett.

A Monster Calls was free to stream online 5 June- 11 June 2020.

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