The Old Vic brings Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls to life on stage in a wild, wondrous, and wrenching production that’s every bit as powerful as the book.
For those who aren’t familiar with this award-winning story, A Monster Calls is a complicated beast. While it’s Patrick Ness’ best known work (outside of Doctor Who spin-off Class), it’s actually inspired by an idea from another author, Siobhan Dowd. Sadly though, Dowd passed away before she could finish writing it, and Ness decided to pick up the baton where she left off. After storming the YA fiction scene, it became a star-studded feature film – and now it comes to life once more for the stage.
Don’t let the title fool you though. While there are fantastical elements in this story, it very much deals with real-life drama and real-life consequences. It’s dark, it’s twisted, and it’s terrifying. It’s about a young boy learning to deal with grief. Faced with the worst that life can throw at you, this is a tale that says: sometimes, it’s okay to be upset. Whether it’s on the page, the screen, or the stage, one thing remains consistent. A Monster Calls is absolutely a story worth experiencing.
Stories Are Wild Creatures
For anyone that does know the book or film, one thing about this theatre adaptation is instantly clear: it’s incredibly faithful to its source material. Director Sally Cookson takes Ness’ words and, rather than rewrite them, simply brings them to life in a whole new way. There are a few tiny extra flourishes that make the story feel more like a ‘show’, but generally speaking, the original script makes it through unscathed. It’s essentially a beat-for-beat retelling of the book, and all the better for it. There’s no needless filler, and its 2 hour 20 minute runtime (including interval) rattles along at a pitch-perfect pace. You can probably get through the book in about the same amount of time, making it even more of a one-to-one interpretation.
Whereas last year’s film version relied on big names and CGI, this production is incredibly low key. While the story centres around Conor O’Malley, the show is very much an ensemble piece. The dozen-strong cast are almost always all on stage, effortlessly transitioning between characters with each passing scene. Even more astounding is the set – or lack thereof. The entire story unfolds with little more than chairs and rope. It’s incredible how things move from a school, to a hospital, to a mighty yew tree with such small visual change. But it works, and it feels very fitting for a show about different perspectives and imagination. Plus, in another clever touch, the musicians are present throughout the majority of the show in the top right of the stage. Their atmospheric score really makes a difference to the drama, and it’s only fair they get to share the spotlight too.
Stories Don’t Always Have Happy Endings
What this production does share in common with the originals though is the story’s emotive power. Conor’s mum is terminally ill, he’s being bullied at school, and he’s faced with the prospect of moving in with his grandma. Worst of all, he’s having nightmares – or rather, one nightmare. The same one, over and over again, constantly haunting his every sleep. Then, just after midnight, as the clock strikes 12:07, a monster calls. This tree-like being tells Conor three stories, after which he must tell him a fourth. And it must be the truth. It’s already a gut-punch by itself, and the actors manage to wring every last emotion out of you before the night is over. There wasn’t a dry eye left in the house by the time the curtain fell, and that’s no exaggeration.
It’s fair to say then that A Monster Calls at The Old Vic is nothing short of a masterpiece. Through the eyes of its young hero, the story tackles inevitable issues that impact even the strongest among us. It’s deep, it’s poetic, and you’d need to have a heart of stone to come away unaffected. It’s reality told through fantasy, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better crafted production than this. The cast and crew truly deserve every standing ovation they get.
There are only a few days left before the show reaches its end, but if you can manage to grab a ticket, we promise it’s worth your time. Just heed our warning: bring along some tissues, and expect the unexpected. This show might just change the way you think about the world. Possibly forever…