The award-winning book, A Monster Calls, came to be under unusual circumstances. Author Siobhan Dowd came up with the story, but sadly died before she got to write it. Her publisher was so taken with Dowd’s concept that they passed her notes to young adult fiction writer Patrick Ness, asking him whether he would write the book. Luckily for us, he did, and the novel was published in 2011. Fast forward to 2018, and The Old Vic adapted it for the stage. With plans for a 2020 tour thwarted by COVID-19, The Old Vic have made available a recording from its original run.
Conor is 13 and has a lot on his plate. His mum is sick. His dad’s busy with his new family in America. He’s getting bullied at school. His grandmother turns up to help around the house and spends all her time barking orders at him. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, a monster appears unannounced late one night, interrupting his sleep to tell him long peculiar stories.
Directed by Sally Cookson, the stage show is a beautiful depiction of love, loss, teenage rage and grief. Michael Vale‘s set is stunning. Inspired by Jim Kay‘s illustrations in the original novel, it’s both terrifying blank and oppressively claustrophobic. Elegantly precise choreography and Aideen Malone‘s taut lighting design keeps the action zipping from scene to scene. Dick Straker‘s projections are stunning on screen though must have been visually cacophonous in situ. Last but not least, Benji Bower’s live music is an understated, atmospheric, electronic feast.
This is a proper ensemble piece and that’s part of the pleasure. Nandi Bhebhe radiates warmth and kindness as the teacher at Conor’s school who’s pretty sure he isn’t ok but needs him to say it. Stuart Goodwin is a majestic Monster – and saying more than that would spoil the surprise if you don’t know the story. John Leader is a terrifyingly charismatic school bully, while Selina Cadell, as Conor’s Grandma, is superbly contained until it all gets a bit too much. At the forefront, though, is Matthew Tennyson as Conor. He’s brilliant in his portrayal of a teenager teetering on the edge of acknowledging a truth he’d rather not face
The show features a disclaimer up front – it was filmed for posterity rather than any plan to share it more widely – and it’s a little creaky in places. Yet while we can’t have the real thing, don’t let that put you off. There’s a cracking little ‘pre-show’ talk, also available on YouTube, with the Old Vic’s Artistic Director, Matthew Warchus, Ness, Cookson, Tennyson, Cadell and Adam Peck. It’s well worth a watch as an insight into the creation of a show, and it’s great to see The Old Vic thinking about how they can enhance the theatregoing experience in these times.
This is a show for older children (aged 10 and up) but don’t let that deter any adult viewers. Conor’s story is specific but the Monster makes it relevant to us all, particularly amidst a pandemic. It’s a wonderful tribute to the power of stories to bring us together, to soothe us and to start the healing process.
A Monster Calls is available on YouTube until Thursday 11 June here