I’d not read the prize winning children’s book or seen the recent film adaptation of A Monster Calls, perhaps shying from the themes of cancer and the loss of a parent - all too familiar ground for many. However, I thought a stage adaptation might be easier and less confrontational on such hard topics. Not the case. A production unlike anything I’ve seen, emotional, thought provoking, inspiring and not a sound from the audience for two hours.
The story follows 13 year old Conor (Ammar Duffus) bravely trying to cope with a mother struggling with an aggressive cancer whom he desperately wants to make well again. Vulnerable and isolated he is bullied at school by day and by night plagued by horrific dreams, shared on stage with bright lights, loud cracks and bangs and writhing bodies around him.
As his overly optimistic Mum deteriorates, life with his strict nan seems ever more likely, his father far away in America with a new family. It seems there is no one who will talk to Conor and tell him the hard truth of his Mum’s situation. He feels unseen.
One night instead of his usual nightmares he experiences a different dream, a manifestation of the ancient knarled yew tree from the garden of his family home. This is where ‘A Monster Calls’ becomes a remarkable spectacle. Keith Gilmore is the booming, towering, menacing manifestation of the yew tree come monster. Ingeniously supported by the rest of the cast using dozens of suspended rigging ropes he moves and glides around the stage as they become one entity. Constantly winding and unwinding, moving and swaying, as the yew tree reflects the ever-changing moods and emotions of Conor.
The tree is of course is the key to the story, as it is in the book and film, director Sally Cookson’s vision using great rope tendrils to bring us a tree very much as a living arboreal being. Her trademark love of simple props and use of human forms breathe life into Michael Vales minimal but gracefully lit white set, which is built to support cunning use of projection for on tap visions of dark fairy tale forest.
Composer Benji Bower used recordings from actual yew stress combined with spoken work, distorted singing, choral harmonies and what I can only describe as electronic Celtic style music. A perfectly matched atmospheric soundtrack that drifts down from two live musicians in an open window high in the set, traumatic instrumental harmonies laid over electronic rhythms.
The monster in the form of the gnarled yew tells Conor three stories over three nights, demanding Conor share his own story, his truth, on the fourth night. The stories, beautifully acted out, seemingly make no sense to the 13-year-old Conor in his emotional state, no easy way out. Conor is tearing himself apart because he doesn’t feel the way he thinks he should, manifest as rage when he trashes his exhausted Nan’s house in one memorable scene.
Through the parable like tales the monster gives Conor the opportunity to be honest and brave and say what he feels about death and loss, even if the adult world around him finds it difficult to talk in specifics. The anger and guilt, grief and rage merge into a unified wall of emotion and upset, complex, contradictory and continuous. Life sometimes makes no sense.
A truly amazing production, often painful and heart rending but equally beautiful in it’s conveyance of powerful emotions, as seen in the glistening eyes of the audience and silence among the mesmerised school groups. It deservedly received an overwhelming and lengthy standing ovation.
A Monster Calls shows at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal from 18 to 22 February 2020.