A Monster Calls (Old Vic) | Review By Sam Eastop

The Old Vic has posted their 2018 production of A Monster Calls to YouTube in the hopes of entertaining us theatre goers, who are locked inside our home, itching to relive that live theatre buzz once more. I was aware of the film that was released in 2016, although I had never seen it, I knew it was a big release at the time due to it’s magical CGI moments and touching story, so this production was an exciting prospect to me, that and the fact I’ll take any chance to watch any form of theatre right now.

Conor is a 13-year-old boy whose mum is battling cancer. We see him struggling through school, the centre of attention for bullies, and his struggles at home, trying to care for his mum and pushing away his gran and dad, the latter lives in the U.S, with another wife and family. His life is uprooted when a monster in the form of a yew tree comes to him at 7 minutes past midnight to tell him three tales, one a night, before, on the fourth, Conor must tell the monster a true tale.

Matthew Tennyson plays our protagonist. He barely ever, if at all, leaves the stage for the entire runtime. He impressively never runs out of steam and keeps the audience running along with him until the final blackout. His energy and child-like portrayal are very pleasant to watch and make you entirely sympathise with him, wishing for him to be able to heal his mother in any way possible. His vocal energy is present throughout, but his voice can become quite graining at times as it never really changes pitch or volume throughout. His performance at points can come off one-note as he seems to just shout at people a lot as he is angry at life and at the situation he has found himself in.

Stewart Goodwin as the Monster is quite a presence on stage. He holds himself in a way that makes you want to do anything he says. His booming voice, helped with a little voice affects, rattles through you, and only makes him appear even more intimidating. That said, Goodwin manages to find the softer more vulnerable parts to his character where appropriate, making us want to know more about this fascinating character and the long life he has led.

Marianne Oldham plays Conor’s Mum to perfection. She is likeable as a person and admirable as a single mum fighting cancer while trying to look after her boy. She manages to find, almost uncomfortably realistic, ways of portraying the way the body can decay and become frail due to the affects of the disease and the drugs used to fight it. We want to see more of her on stage, but the moments she is given, she uses to great effect, making us understand even more of Conor’s grief and anger at their terrible situation.

Selina Cadell portrays Conor’s Gran. These two do not have the best relationship in the story, Cadell plays this effectively and puts the audience at arm’s length from her character, just like Conor. But, as she lets him in more, we too get a better grasp of her as a person. Selina’s detailed performance makes us realise that this terrible disease is affecting her too, we just don’t’ see it as much, as she hides it and puts on a brave face for her grandson.

The ensemble of this production is stellar. They all add to the mysterious atmosphere with some incredible physical movement pieces that are a joy to watch. Whether they are used to represent the madness of Conor’s nightmares, or the stress of the real world around him, they are an invaluable asset to this production and the idea it is going for. Each actor plays a smaller part in the production too, there are only 13 cast members in the production. They make it feel much larger with their skills and ability to transition in and out of movement to character and vice versa. When they were not in scenes, they sat in chairs on the side of the stage, but even when not on stage they were involved; making sounds, becoming part of the set design, doing any actions the story requires of them.

Director Sally Cookson took a unique approach to this production. The bare bones style and the plain look of everything was a stark contrast to the grand and fantastical ideas the story revolves around. This design, however, hints at the underlying story beneath the little boy and his monster; the story of a woman dying of cancer and the affect this has on the people close to her. The choice to make the monster a shirtless man in three quarter length trousers hanging from rope with minimal-to-no makeup was a risky one, and one that does not entirely pay off. To make the titular character so minimal and expect the audience to just run with it without at first questioning if that actually is “The Monster” is a bit ridiculous, but once the audience is past that, they settle into it a little more. Scene transitions were short and effective, with sharp stabbing music that can be a little frightening and jarring but fit the uncomfortable and angry emotions our protagonist is experiencing.

Michael Vale’s set design is masterful. It is plain and bleak, with nothing more than a white wall and stage with ropes hanging everywhere, but the choice to make the back wall a screen that helps enhance the atmosphere and tone during transitions and dreams was a stroke of genius. The ropes used for big set pieces like trees and cars, at first, is distracting and weird, but later becomes normal and actually comes across as a very clever and effective use of very little assets.

The lighting by Aideen Malone is the highlight of this production. She captures tone, atmosphere, setting and tension expertly, managing to convince us characters are in a lift with just a bright box of light on stage and the characters shadows on the back wall. The creativeness to use so little to achieve so much is astounding. Rooms suddenly have walls and foundations due to the cut off light making Conor seem locked inside the box of his house, and his own mind.

Composer Benji Bower uses modern new wave sounds to build an atmosphere that feels current and relevant. The music comes in at the perfect moments with just the right sounds and feeling; at one point the slow building of the music sounded like the groans of a monster, igniting the imagination of everyone in the audience. The musicians sat in a cut-out space in the back wall. This was a very interesting decision as it meant the audience can see what the musicians are doing, making the piece feel like a play with music, which in many respects it is, with actual singing at points that only added to the ethereal feel of the monster and his stories. The modern music used was the fuel for the ensemble’s movement pieces, driving how the pieces looked with very clever rhythms and timing.

Overall, this production is a very impressive piece, considering the minimal style it went for and what they managed to do with so little. My only problem really lies with the decision to go so minimal in the first place. The monster being a man on stilts with no makeup or any discernible costume leaves the audience feeling a little cheated, making us have to try a little harder to suspend our disbelief and working our imaginations harder to stay involved. This, however, will probably not be an issue for any children watching, who, I’m sure, will be terrified of the monster, their imaginations making him out to be all sorts of terrible; which I suppose may be the idea behind the design in the first place. The ensemble are fantastic and are really what keep this production moving forward, highlighted particularly well by the fantastic music and lighting throughout. The play’s base story of a boy desperately hoping not to lose his mum is one I think everyone can really get behind, and this production does a fantastic job of telling it. But the fantastical way the play goes about it is something I feel this production misses out on; The Monster Calls but is left waiting for an answer.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Written by Sam Eastop.

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