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A Monster Calls at The Old Vic

A Monster Calls at The Old Vic

By Carly-Ann Clements, Published July 19, 2018

Patrick Ness’ children’s’ novel about a 13-year-old boy trying to cope with his mother’s illness was an instant success having won the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals in 2011. Now, Sally Cookson has put her signature style on the moving tale where fantasy and reality collide in this production aimed at young people at The Old Vic.

Conor O’Malley is an ordinary boy living an out-of-the-ordinary life. He makes his own breakfast, puts on the washing and makes his mum a cup of tea, all before heading to school. When his mum’s illness doesn’t seem to be getting better, Conor is visited at 12.07am by a monster who comes walking in the night to tell him three stories in exchange for his. With life crumbling around him, Conor becomes reliant on the monster in his time of need. But is it the help he was looking for?

The moving and beautiful stage production brought the audience to tears then to their feet on its opening night this week. And here are five reasons why.

Getting tied up

Bringing a giant monster to life on stage is no small feat. And Sally’s elegant and simple solution is perfect. Using ropes hung from the flies that the actors gather, spread and climb throughout the performance to form the imposing figure. With giant tree-like shadows cast across the blank white walls of the set coupled with the booming voice of Stuart Goodwin who embodies the monster, this beautiful interpretation of Patrick’s storytelling beast fills the stage making it grander than it physically is.

What is that sound?

In a production that has no set changes cloaked in darkness and costumes are changed front and centre, it wouldn’t feel right to have the band concealed. The two ever-present on-stage musicians create a beautiful soundscape – written by Benji Bower and performed by him and Will Bower – of jarring electronic thrums juxtaposed against delicate and primal harmonies provided mainly by actors on stage. The haunting and emotive score adds an essential dimension to the show transporting it from reality to fantasy, grief to acceptance.

What a cast

Whether it’s the book, film or play, the power of A Monster Calls lies in its story. And that story could not be told without the incredible cast. Stuart’s powerful, commanding yet nurturing monster stood next to Matthew Tennyson’s socially awkward, grieving, angry Conor makes the presence of the monster larger than life and Conor’s fragility even more evident. Nandi Bhebhe, John Leader and Witney White offer stand-out performances in the ensemble and supporting characters.

The writing on the wall

As well as a giant monster, Sally was tasked with throwing Conor into a nightmare filled with terror and suffering. The horrifying scenes were created using stunning but unsettling projections by Dick Straker. The intense, rich images of blood swirling through the ether, plus Dan Canham’s movement resulted in a dark world which instantly helps the audience understand Conor’s grief, fear and suffering which he’s hiding from the world – especially his mum.

It’s emotional

If you’re walking into a show about a child coping with his mother’s failing battle against cancer and not expecting to cry, who even are you? A Monster Calls will make you sob no matter the medium but Sally’s stripped-back adaptation adds a rawness to the tale which will render you a teary mess – even while you’re on the tube home. From the moment the monster embraces Conor providing him with the comfort he so desperately needs to the moment Conor can admit the truth to himself and his mum before it’s too late, you’ll be reaching for the tissues and hearing whimpering throughout the auditorium. It’s an important reminder to not only be aware of other people’s emotions at times of distress but to accept our own, no matter how hard or unwanted they are.

A Monster Calls is playing at The Old Vic until 25 August. To get your tickets, click here.

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