Chichester Festival Theatre production
Lyric Theatre, The Lowry, Salford
25-29 February 2020; 2hr 15min
A Monster Calls is a dramatisation of the highly-regarded children's fantasy novel by Patrick Ness, inspired by an original idea by Siobhan David.
The story’s central character, 13-year-old Conor O’Malley, is seeing his life collapse around him. His father is now living in America with a new family, while his mother has cancer. Conor is trying to make everything as normal as possible, attending school, doing the housework, keeping his grandmother at bay, but is visited every night by a monster: the nearby ancient yew-tree in near-human form. The monster tells Conor fantastic stories. After the third, the monster will expect a story from Conor, and it must be true. The question is how far Conor can recognise and accept truth.
Michael Vale’s set design is adventurous: the sparse stage has only two rows of old-fashioned school chairs and a collection of hefty ropes dangling from above. These are furled and unfurled into props and scenery, most notably becoming the tree – reliable, supportive, at times menacing – and also, briefly, a clock pendulum. Time is passing. The cast of twelve remains on stage for much of the performance, becoming furniture, handing Conor his milk and cornflakes, observing and recounting both as a silent chorus and as specific characters.
In scenes that captivate the teenage audience, Greg Bernstein, Kel Matsena and Cora Kirk are suitably menacing and swaggering as the three school bullies, Harry, Anton and Lily, who add to Conor’s pain. The hurtful inevitability of their conduct, and of Conor’s acceptance of his victim status as all four hide their insecurities is recognisable and amusingly entertaining. Ammar Duffus portrays Conor’s struggle with a quiet insistence and clear insight into his inner turmoil.
Maria Omakinwa brings a poise and strength to the role of Conor’s mother, stoic and outwardly optimistic. Conor’s dad (Ewan Wardrop), on a short visit, is unable to help much but his richly-textured, brief scenes with Conor are a highlight: the relationship strong yet fracturing, while subtleties of language display the gap in their grasp of reality and their reliance on hope.
The production, devised and directed by Sally Cookson, uses physical theatre, mime, aerobatics, physical improvisation, dance and music to develop the story and build the links and clashes between reality, hope, dreams and nightmares. The monster, played in human form by Keith Gilmore, is commanding; the yew-tree in which he is often entangled is stunningly effective, drawn together from those gym ropes and inventive movement.
Composer Benji Bower’s music, played live, adds a further, welcome dimension.
While the theatre audience is dominated by school groups and many young people leave enthralled and in tears, the play did not entirely work for me. Individual performances are excellent, ensemble work strong. The less-conventional aspects helped tell an unhappy but essential story where a more traditional approach might have been devastatingly bleak. But aspects of style, an over-reverence for myth and a tendency for repetition detract from a complex story. Words do matter. The simple difference between Conor’s "will" and his father’s "would" was one of the most moving moments for me.
A Monster Calls is an excellent way to help young people to explore their feelings about death and survival. Guidance for the show lists it as suitable for age 10+. I’d maybe raise that by a few years and ensure there was an opportunity for conversations afterwards.
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