A Monster Calls grew from an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, who was terminally ill with cancer when she started the story and tragically died before she could write it.
Upon publication, A Monster Calls became an immediate best-seller with children and adults alike, praised for its sympathetic insight into love, loss, and healing, and earning huge critical acclaim.
Sally Cookson arrives at The Old Vic after making her name sympathetically adapting much-loved, classic stories like Treasure Island (2014) Peter Pan (2016) and her highly acclaimed Jane Eyre (2015 & 2017). She directs her vision of A Monster Calls, the 2011 intrusion fantasy novel by Brit-American journalist, author, lecturer and screenwriter Patrick Ness (Chaos Walking YA Trilogy).
Thirteen-year-old Conor and his mum seem to have managed just fine since his dad moved to America to work and start a new family. But now, he is struggling to cope with his mother’s serious illness. That she is sick, is undeniable. But, she insists she is getting better. Connor tries hard to believe her, but with his worried grandmother increasingly involved, teachers and friends reaching out, and his dad making a flying visit, Connor’s state of denial is spilling from deep inside. Making him an easy target for bullies at school and a terrifying supernatural entity who visits him at 12:07, armed with stories about ambiguous characters, demanding something Connor seems reluctant to give – truth.
The cast of A Monster Calls is a cornucopia of inclusion, with almost half of ethnic origin, and no sign of it causing isolation or stereotype – Witney White, John Leader, Nandi Bhebhe, Hammed Animashaun and Felix Hayes as Dad lend solid support to the central cast (Matthew Tennyson as ‘Conor’, Stuart Goodwin as ‘the Monster’, Marianne Oldham as ‘Mum’, Selina Cadell as ‘Grandma’, and other ensemble – Matt Costain, Georgia Frost, and Jonathan Holby).
They are supported by minimal props and scenery, but strong staging, with the 12-strong cast moving beautifully around the stage, transporting props in ingenious ways, clearly inhabiting different characters and both Bhebhe and White providing soulful vocals to the haunting, minimalistic Bower brothers’ score.
Most arresting is the majestic Yew tree, central to the story, representing the strong bond between mother and son and the agency through which Connor must confront his deepest fears. Made from thick white rope, it seems almost alive at times, playing its role to perfection.
Yet, for all its critical success and affection in the book’s cross-over audiences, this story will not appeal to everybody. Because, whilst facing up to truth might be the moral of the story, I’m not sure that the writers are doing young adults a service by showing that they have to shoulder their burdens in such a terrifying manner, within the emotional context of family, teachers, and friends doing everything right and reaching out repeatedly.
This production somehow shows that much of the drama could have been avoided had the adults been responsible, honest adults in the first instance.
A Monster Calls is booking at London’s The Old Vic until 25 August 2018. Find out more and book tickets here.