THEATRE REVIEW: A Monster Calls – Old Vic Theatre  

Based on Patrick Ness’ novel, which won the 2012 Carnegie medal along with the Kate Greenaway medal for Jim Kay‘s illustrations, A Monster Calls is both theatrically stunning and emotionally hard-hitting. Children shouldn’t have to see their parents die and older people shouldn’t have to witness their adult children pre-deceasing them but, tragically, it happens. Siobhan Dowd, whose idea this novel originally was, died of cancer before she could write it.

Conor’s single mum is dying of cancer. It is obvious to everyone around them and to the audience but Conor refuses to accept the truth and his mum relentlessly insists that she’s getting better. Grandma, who can be a bit trying, is rather clumsily doing her best. So in his way is long divorced Dad who visits from America where he has a new family. Conor has nightmares predicated on fear of the unknown. Then the terrifying Yew Tree in the garden morphs into frightening, ultimately benign, story-telling monster (inner voice?) which eventually helps Conor to accept his situation. I heard one articulate c11 year old say to his father on the way out “I think the message of that is that you HAVE to let go” and it’s as good a summary as any.

Director Sally Cookson and her trademark ensemble cast tell this uncompromising story by sitting in two facing rows of four at the sides of the stage and moving slickly into all sorts of action and roles. There’s some very beautiful (and impressive) fluid acrobatic work with ropes which also neatly form things such as car seat belts – this is physical theatre at its imaginative best. The nightmare scenes are a hideous collage of moving fiery colours projected on a back drop. Music by Benji and Will Bower (on a platform above) provides masses of atmospheric colour from mental turmoil to quiet reflection.

At the heart of all this is a towering performance from Matthew Tennyson as Conor. The actor is, apparently, 30 but he gets right inside the petulant defensiveness of a 13-year-old and tempers it with all that raw fear. And the scenes where he gets bullied at school, mostly because of his “situation” are hideously convincing.

Review by Susan Elkin