Love, loss and healing are the elements that fuel Sally Cookson’s absorbing and stirring play A Monster Calls (Old Vic Theatre), adapted from Patrick Ness’s magic realist 2011 novel.
Thirteen-year-old Conor and his mum have managed just fine since his dad moved to America. But now his mum is terminally ill with cancer and he is bullied by kids at school. Then one night, at seven minutes past midnight Conor is woken by something at his window. A monster, who lives in a giant yew tree near Conor’s home, comes knocking. It’s come to tell Conor tales from when it walked before. And when it is finished, Conor must tell his own story and face his deepest fears.
This is a tough, but deeply moving story, to transplant to another medium. The 2016 film enlisted the lavish special effects of standard Hollywood fare. But director Sally Cookson takes a more imaginative and economical approach, using thick hanging ropes to engage the audience's attention. They become the yew tree (which has remedial effects and from which anti-cancer drugs are extracted) itself, as well as the seat belts in Conor’s grandmother’s car, successfully building a precise and believable onstage world. Indeed Cookson’s adaptation is storytelling in its finest form: projections are used sparingly but efficiently to help bring Conor’s nightmarish experiences to life on Michael Vale’s stark white set, while a two-piece band contribute live music to Benji Bower’s score, and enhance the mood and atmosphere. Even though it’s packed with movement, the piece feels visually light and seamless. Movement director Dan Canham creates an intricate and solid choreography, interlacing it with simple acrobatics by Matt Costain.
Cookson’s take on the story becomes more than an exploration of humanity, she shows how nightmares and reality intertwine and blot the lives of good and bad.
Of course, this is largely due to the first-rate central performance by Matthew Tennyson as Conor. With a vacant stare, lost in his own personal grief, Tennyson draws you into the wonder and pathos of the boy’s bewilderment and isolation. In the rest of the multi-tasking company of 10, Stuart Goodwin as a bare-chested and emphatically masculine substitute for Conor’s too absent father, as the monster of the title, Marianne Oldham, most affecting as the increasingly enfeebled mother, and Selina Cadell as the delightfully brisk grandmother, stand out.
This then is a play which packs an enormous emotional punch and leaves us with the feeling that if we can admit to ourselves the most agonising truths, we have an honest basis on which to build a life, even when enduring the worst of griefs.
A Monster Calls
Runs until Saturday 25 August at the Old Vic, London.
Box office: 0844 871 7628Last modified: August 3, 2018