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A Monster Calls

by on 1 April 2022

Stories Are Wild Creatures

A Monster Calls

 by Patrick Ness, adapted by Sally Cookson and Adam Peck

The Old Vic and Bristol Old Vic at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 9th April, then on tour until 12th June.

Review by Heather Moulson

(Before this production even started, I was initiated into the wonders of a digital programme.  Whatever next?!  Thank you Front of House Staff, for introducing and helping me with this innovation.  Although I yearned for the comfort of page-turning, I saw that simply using an app was really the way to go.) 

A Monster Calls, adapted from the novel by Patrick Ness by Sally Cookson and Adam Peck, brought this story to life on stage.  With a very simple set of ten interactive actors seated either side, thirteen year old Connor, played impressively by Anthony Aje, prepares for school.  He has slept badly, because a Monster wakes him at his window, telling parables with unpredictable endings, until eventually Connor tells his own, which is the most significant of all. 

The story was effectively and simply told using a sequence of hanging ropes forming the thickset sinister roots of a tree, an inspired concept by set designer Michael Vale.

Stories are wild creatures”, the Monster said. “When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?

The superb Monster, played by the outstanding Keith Gilmore was, quite frankly, absolutely terrifying.  With great support from the cast, we discovered the tenderness of Connor’s dying mother, the sternness of his grandmother and the mostly calming presence of his estranged Dad.  The school bullying by his fellow Year 8 pupils was just disturbing, vaguely healed by the support from Connor’s friend Lily, played by Eleanor Kane.   We felt Connor’s loneliness as he dealt with these demons alone, with the bullying, with grief, and feelings of inadequacy. 

With tension, graphic violence and the Monster’s unnerving presence, the sound effects and lighting created a tangible atmosphere.  Bringing together Aideen Malone’s lighting design and Michael Beer’s sound, engenders an eerily edgy ambience.   There were striking silhouettes and many varying stages and depths of tension.  Composer Benji Bower’s musicscape, skilfully interpreted by musicians Seamus Carey and Luke Potter, underlines the whole feeling of the piece.

I was impressed with the Monster walking on stilts, far more sophisticated than I remember them in childhood, and I was also taken with how these simplistic hanging ropes were used so skilfully.  The Monster gave the chilling effect of a deadly spider awaiting in a web. 

The interval also came up trumps, as it gave access to everyone in the theatre to write a label with a message to the Monster to leave in a beautifully made cardboard tree, a clever and innovative concept.   This story touches on broader mental health issues with teenagers.  Conscious that this adaptation of A Monster Calls is presented at a time when young people are under pressure, especially from the effects of the Covid pandemic, Rose Theatre has partnered with Mind in Kingston, the mental health charity, to offer support to anyone affected by the subject matter of the show.  Conor asks, “How do you fight it? How do you fight all the different stuff inside?”

Every actor fulfilled their full potential, and the background of the clock that grew larger was more effective than any cinema experience.   I won’t reveal the ironic saving graces of this piece but I will say it was a colourful climax.  What I will also say, though, is that it was overloud and could have benefited from being edited.  This didn’t make it any the less enjoyable however.

Director Sally Cookson, having worked with the original company in devising the concepts, has melded brilliant ideas together, to make a very slick and emotionally effective production.   

Heather Moulson, March 2022

Photography by Manuel Harlan

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    A most insightful review, also interested in the ‘app’ programme details.

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