Old Vic digital theatre review: A Monster Calls
James R | On 05, Jun 2020
Stories are one of the most important things in the world. They allow us to imagine the impossible, confront the nightmarish and share the reality of existence. They can make the most personal thing universal, invite empathy with others and, in doing so, help us get in touch with something of ourselves. All of that can sound profoundly pretentious – A Monster Calls, based on Patrick Ness’ remarkable young adult novel, manages to capture all of those things, but without the pretentious part.
The story is powerfully simple. It follows Conor, a 13-year-old who has been living with his mum after his dad moved to America. When she struggles with a terminal illness, though, he finds his life beginning to crumble, not helped by his stern, interfering grandma or the kids at school who avoid him like he’s caught the condition too. Then, at night, he’s unexpectedly woken up by the yew tree outside. “Stories are wild animals,” the tree explains. “If you let them loose, who knows what havoc they may wreak?”
The tree has three stories to offer, each one telling a snapshot of human nature – from greed to revenge – but also demands Conor tells his own story, one about his deepest fear. The result is a hugely moving tale of grief and healing, one that works for kids and adults alike.
The Old Vic’s production steps into that timeless limbo with ambitious simplicity: director Sally Cookson, who wowed with her production of Jane Eyre, strips down the spectacle to create something wonderfully tangible and intimate. Schoolrooms are represented by chairs, the cast become props, and the gigantic walking tree is built out of winding, interweaving ropes.
Wrapping up Conor (a brilliantly physical Matthew Tennyson) inside its amorphous tendrils, the result is a production that nails the blend of reality and fantasy, inviting the audience to fill in the details. Accompanied by an engaging score by Benji and Will Bower – performed boldly in sight at the back of the stage – the result is an explicit act of shared imagination and creation, a powerful experience that finds weight and insight in fairytales – and, most of all, profound truth in the act of storytelling itself.
A Monster Calls is available on YouTube until 12th June 2020.