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Behind-the-scenes of… A Monster Calls

After a critically-acclaimed run at London's Old Vic in 2018, Sally Cookson brings her Olivier Award-winning production to the Belgrade Theatre Coventry from March 3-7, as part of its first ever UK tour.

Expect daring aerial scenes, playful physical theatre and some impressive rope work in this emotive big ensemble piece for over 10’s about a lonely teenager struggling to cope with his mother’s cancer and a monster in a yew tree. Muddy goes behind-the-scenes…with Midlands-born Associate Director and aerial captain Sam Wood to find out just how they do it.

Ammar-Duffus as Conor in A Monster Calls

L-R-Ammar-Duffus as Conor and Keith Gilmore as Monster in A Monster Calls UK Tour. Photos by Manuel Harlan.

Adapted from the Carnegie and Greenaway Prize-winning YA novel by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd, A Monster Calls tells the story of 13-year-old Conor O’Malley. Led by visionary director Sally Cookson (La StradaJane EyreHetty Feather), the original London show was devised collaboratively with the original London company, and described by critics as “a wondrous feat of group-devised communal story-telling” (The Independent) and “typically inventive and mightily stirring” (Telegraph).

Keith Gilmore's monster in an aerial rope display in A Monster Calls

Keith-Gilmore’s Monster and the cast of A Monster Calls – UK Tour

For the new 2020 tour, a new team of actors and creatives have been working to develop their own interpretation of the narrative, among them Evesham-born Associate Director, aerial captain and male swing Sam Wood, who went to primary school in Stratford-upon Avon and started his professional career performing three seasons with the company at the RSC.

Sally Cookson’s method of creating work with her companies is famously collaborative, and for some of the cast, it offers a complete change from what they’re used to. But for Sam, who has worked with her before, it’s become almost second nature.  “I’ve done quite a lot of shows like this, with Kneehigh and other companies. As an associate I’ve always been put in front of people like Sally and Emma Rice, who have a way of working that’s different to what you’d think of with directing or even devising. It’s storytelling with the company, which gives everyone a different kind of ownership over it,” he said.

“It’s not just the actors in the space speaking lines it’s also about the aerial work, the lighting, the fact that the whole piece is underscored with music from top to bottom. It’s the best kind of theatre.”

the ensemble in A Monster Calls

As well as supporting Sally to direct the show, Sam is also both the aerial captain and male swing for the show. In big ensemble piece where movement and physical theatre are so integral, there’s a huge amount to take in and retain. The sheer effort in remembering all those dance moves is enough to put your daily sudoku to shame.

To help with this, he works closely with dance captain and female swing Raffaella Covino, whom he originally met while working with Sally on her production of Peter Pan at the National Theatre.

Sam said: “When you’re an associate or a dance captain, your job is to map the whole show from top to bottom, so me and Raff are mapping everybody’s movements, everybody’s scene work – it’s our job to know the tracks for all 11 actors. We will also spend a lot of time together doing our own separate rehearsals, where she’ll take me through movement, and I’ll take her through any scene work she’s a part of.

“It’s a lot to do, but because we’re used to this way of working, the hardest thing for us is actually when you have to zone in on one particular character’s track. I’m much more used to having a picture of the full show in my head than looking at what one person is doing.”

Ammar Duffus as Conor and the ensemble-of-A-Monster-Calls-UK-Tour

As well as playing their own individual characters, the actors also work together as an ensemble to create a picture of Conor’s inner turbulence. Sam said: “With this show, the ensemble is on stage from the beginning of the show to the end, and they continually shift their focus in terms of who they help to represent. For the most part, they are there to reflect how Conor is feeling inside, but occasionally they change. When the monster’s on stage, for example, they become part of him, part of the tree. At other times, their focus might be on one of the primary characters, whether it’s mum or dad.”

ensemble of A Monster Calls on stage

In the novel the yew tree comes to life as the monster – on stage this is suggested by an imposing metal rig, hung with thick ropes that are used by the cast for movement and aerial work. Sam said: “The rig is about 1.2 metres shorter in the rehearsal room than it can get on stage, so it’s a really imposing presence when you walk in as an audience member. There’s something really exciting when you come in and see that – it’s like a playground. All of the actors interact with the ropes and the structure at some point, and the rig itself has to be altered and changed according to the venue we’re performing in.”

But beyond being wowed by the physical and mental gymnastics involved, Sam says what audiences should expect from this show is an honest and authentic emotional experience, following complex characters on a journey through love and grief, joy and pain, guilt, forgiveness and freedom.

Sally Cookson herself describes it as “a story that celebrates stories, but it also gets under the skin of what we do as a society when it comes to talking about important stuff.”

A Monster Calls shows at the Belgrade Theatre from 3-7 March. Tel the box office on 024 7655 3055, belgrade. where prices are cheaper. 

The UK tour also visits: Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield; His Majesty’s Theatre Aberdeen; Cambridge Arts Theatre; Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh; Malvern Theatres; Norwich Theatre Royal; Wales Millennium Theatre, Cardiff; Theatre Royal, Newcastle; Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford; Theatre Royal, Plymouth; Curve, Leicester and Bristol Old Vic.

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