Bristol Old Vic
A Monster Calls
May to June, 2018
A tsunami of emotions
A Great Unspoken Truth lies at the heart of this extraordinary production – itself based on an equally extraordinary book – and if you’re in any way uncomfortable with the prospect of mortality (who isn’t?) you must definitely bite the bullet and see this play.
A Monster Calls centres around the character of Conor, a sensitive, ordinary 13-year-old plunged into a nightmarish existence prompted by his mother’s cancer diagnosis. The boy struggles to hold on to what passes for a normal existence while surrounded by his own swirling teenage emotions, a gang of school bullies, his father’s physical absence and his mum’s terminal condition.
Into this troubled mix walks The Monster; more specifically, the spirit of a yew tree standing outside the family house which begins to haunt Conor’s waking existence. The Monster is not altogether fiendish, yet neither is he benign – his physicality, and insistence that Conor listens to the stories he tells about conflicting human emotions, makes him a towering presence in the boy’s increasingly difficult life.
This production harnesses simplicity and profundity in equal measure to show us that while life is neither simple nor fair, understanding of it is possible if one is prepared to face some very difficult truths.
An ensemble cast of highly versatile actors never fails to impress and, using nothing more than ropes and chairs as props, allows us to experience the full tsunami of emotions which emanates from the stage over two hours. Matthew Tennyson, as Conor, inevitably takes the spotlight throughout; the boy is played as vulnerable, but with an underlying anger– and it is only when the Monster enables him to channel this anger does something shift and Conor understands that it’s OK not to feel OK.
Stuart Goodwin is authoritative and physically commanding as The Monster, while Marianne Oldham plays the dying mother with just the right balance of courage and vulnerability. Her scenes with Conor are moving beyond words – that there is an advert for Macmillan Cancer Support in the back of the programme says it all.
As in life, theatre doesn’t always end happily. But even with a conclusion such as the one offered here, there is hope for the boy that time will heal, and that a challenging relationship with his stiff-upper lipped grandmother (Selina Cadell) will be the key to a more settled future.
As the lights went up and the cast took their bows, the impact on the audience of the truths revealed were there for all to see. Some sat stock still, others clung to those in the seat next to them, more still rushed for the theatre door and a stiff whisky in the nearest pub. I imagine it’s the same reaction, night after night. Such is life, and death too.
A Monster Calls at Old Vic
PREVIEW: A world premiere production of bestselling book and box office film success, A Monster Calls is on stage at Bristol Old Vic from Thursday, May 31.
It is based on the novel by Patrick Ness, which scooped an unprecedented double win of the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals for outstanding children’s literature and illustration.
Award-winning director Sally Cookson has redesigned it for the stage.
Sally said: "The prospect of adapting Ness’ book is tantalising and strikes a chord with anyone who’s been threatened with losing someone they love.
"The combination of gritty realism and magic make it perfect for theatre.”
This far too-early-coming of age fairytale is spellbinding for everyone as thirteen-year-old Connor (played by Matthew Tennyson) faces his beloved mother’s (Marianne Oldham), terminal illness.
He is haunted by nightmares and his days at school are no better.
Then, one night, at seven minutes past midnight, Connor is woken by something rattling at his window.
A monster tree (Stuart Goodwin) is stalking and talking to him.
Three times the tree comes to teach Connor lessons he vitally needs to learn to live again.
The final trail is when the teenager must face his deepest fears.
Interfering grandmother (Selina Cadell) is bustling and bossy as a coping strategy to deal with her daughter’s illness and grandson’s distress.
She gives understanding and true grit to Connor.
Connor’s dad (Felix Hayes) flies back (for a while) from his new life in US while Connor deals with monsters that appear very much more real in the classroom, corridors and playground.
When I saw the film I was blown away by this highly imaginative and tender modern-day fairy story which merges heartbreak and healing to reveal the meaning of courageous love in the face of death.
If there was ever a story about hope and loss that can bring a sense of power to a child (and adults) then A Monster Calls, is important to see and amazing that the world premiere is in Bristol.
A Monster Calls is on stage from Thursday to Saturday, May 31-June 16.
Tickets from £7.50.
For more information go to www.bristololdvic.org.uk or telephone 0117 987 7877.
Suitable for anyone aged 10-plus.
This is an Old Vic production in association with Bristol Old Vic and the cast includes: Hammed Animashaun, Nandi Bhebhe, Selina Cadell, Matt Costain, Georgia Frost, Stuart Goodwin, Felix Hayes, Jonathan Holby, John Leader, Marianne Oldham, Matthew Tennyson and Witney White.