wed 21/08/2019

A Monster Calls, Old Vic - wild, beautiful theatre that beguiles and bruises | reviews, news & interviews

A Monster Calls, Old Vic - wild, beautiful theatre that beguiles and bruises

A Monster Calls, Old Vic - wild, beautiful theatre that beguiles and bruises

A fearlessly experimental, physically ingenious exploration of the text

Matthew Tennyson conveys the numb mutiny of a boy trying to pretend his world isn't falling apartManuel Harlan

A raw pagan vitality animates this extraordinary story about a teenage boy wrestling with tumultuous emotions in the face of his mother’s terminal illness. Director Sally Cookson has taken the potent blend of myth and realism in Patrick Ness’s book and transformed it into a wild, beautiful piece of theatre that visually beguiles at the same time as it bruises the heart.

Grief – even when suppressed – is an isolating phenomenon, and the production emphasises this from the start by stranding the boy, Conor (Matthew Tennyson, pictured above right), at the centre of a stark, clinical white stage. As a director, Cookson has marked herself out for her fearlessly experimental, physically ingenious exploration of text. Here one of her boldest coups is to make the rest of the cast switch constantly between playing the external characters in his life and the whorl of angry feelings spinning round his head.

Cast of A Monster Calls at The Old VicTwo straight lines of simple wooden chairs – on which the other actors sit for much of the action – are positioned at either side of the stage, while suspended ropes are initially bunched together. Gazing hard-eyed at the audience, Matthew Tennyson – the adult actor playing thirteen-year-old Conor – instantly conveys the numb mutiny of a young boy trying very hard to pretend everything is normal at the same time as his world disintegrates around him.

Shortly after the opening – in which we see a flashback of his mother holding him as a baby – with a ‘whoompf’ we enter the nightmare. The clinical white backdrop swirls with blood, it’s 12.07 in the middle of the night, and Conor is sitting up, staring into nothingness. The sense of the dark dream intensifies as the cast moves the suspended ropes across the stage, until they metamorphose into the shape of an abstract yew tree. The branches quickly reveal a fearful figure: blazing-eyed, bare-chested, the embodiment – he proclaims – of such pagan spirits as the Ancient Yew Tree, Herne the Hunter, or the Snake of the World – though here he is simply known as The Monster.

Stuart Goodwin’s Monster is a proud embodiment of paradox – even as he embodies the chaos and fear in Conor’s life, he imposes order by announcing that he will tell three stories "from when I walked before." One of the many wonderful aspects of the production is the way it interweaves these mythical interludes with the normal fabric of Conor’s day-to-day existence. Both by night and day Conor discovers he has no control, whether in the Monster’s dark fairy stories - seemingly devoid of justice or happy endings - or in a world where nobody can assure him that his mother will get better. The sense of unreality becomes all pervasive.

Yet alongside the darkness there are threads of lightness and gentle comedy that lift the production. One of the most enjoyable is the cast’s recreation of a teenage boy’s morning, as different actors wander across the stage to drop clothes randomly on the floor, or thrust out boxes of breakfast cereal as he prepares bleary-eyed for school. There’s a particularly amusing moment when they rearrange the chairs in a line, and suddenly become a slump of petulant teenagers in Conor’s class, baiting the teacher. Even the bullies – who include Hammed Animashaun’s physically imposing Anton, grief-stricken by the death of his hamster – demonstrate how life’s bleakest moments are often intertwined with its funniest.Cast of A Monster Calls at The Old VicAs a critic I should disclose I have not read Ness’s book, but I have had the experience of losing a parent to terminal illness. In both its comedy and tragedy the production sounds out profound truths in its exploration of the emotions surrounding such a time. That’s aided not least by the universally excellent performances, whether it’s Marianne Oldham’s quietly brave Mum, Selina Cadell’s spicily acerbic grandmother, or Witney White’s defiantly emphathetic Lily, trying to make sense of her friendship with a boy who’s pushing everyone away.

Beyond this, the visual ingenuity of Michael Vale’s set is matched by the subtle cleverness of the music, performed by Benji Bower and Will Bower in a raised room set into the white backdrop. Using keyboards, percussion, and a miked ’cello and bass, they deftly shift the mood between the brittle reality of Conor’s external life and the more lyrical confusion of his thoughts.

Yet for all its individual aspects, overall this is a tribute to the power of stories. As the evening develops, it becomes ever clearer that it’s not because they entertain, or offer happy endings, but because they articulate what is most unpalatable, both about ourselves and our lives. In that sense they embody the essential truth of what it is to be human, far more enduring than mere flesh and blood. They are "the wildest things of all", as Goodwin’s resonant, imposing monster says, and ultimately it’s precisely that sense of untameability that gives this production its power.

The production demonstrates how life's bleakest moments are often intertwined with its funniest

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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