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REVIEW: A Monster Calls

A fantastical fairytale for the digital age - this inventive new UK touring production of Patrick Ness’s award-winning YA tear-jerker lands a raw emotional punch.

Ammar Duffus as Conor and the ensemble of A Monster Calls UK Tour. Photos by Manuel Harlan.

A contemporary story about a 13-year-old boy dealing with grief while simultaneously being bullied at school doesn’t exactly sound like the most cheerful piece of theatre.

But Sally Cookson’s brilliantly inventive stage adaptation of A Monster Calls grips from the very beginning.

Impressive aerial rope skills, Benji Bower’s powerful hypnotic electro/classical soundtrack performed by two live musicians and a polished 12-strong ensemble cast bring this intense novel energetically to life.

Based on the Carnegie and Greenaway Medal-winning novel – the only book ever to receive both awards – it was written by British-American young adult author Patrick Ness inspired by an idea from YA author Siobhan Dowd, who sadly died from breast cancer, aged 47.

The 2016 film, adapted by Ness himself, starring Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson and Lewis MacDougall, was a hard act to follow but Cookson’s Olivier Award-winning London production at the Old Vic in 2018 opened to rave reviews. The collaborative director has also won plaudits for La Strada, Hetty Feather, Jane Eyre and Peter Pan. This is the play’s first UK tour with a new cast.

Ammar Duffus and Keiwth Gilmore as Conor and the Monster.

Ammar Duffer’s central performance as teenage Conor has such emotional authenticity – deftly capturing his bewilderment, stoic isolation and anger as his single mum is treated for cancer.

Michael Vale’s bare white minimalist design with two rows of wooden school chairs facing each other on either side of the stage is stark and stylish. The ensemble sits on the chairs at the side when not playing multiple parts or mimicking the central character’s inner life through physical theatre and mime.

Conor’s daily morning routine of getting ready for school is staged with wit – easily relatable for kids and parents. There’s also an intimacy – in one school scene the chairs are moved in a row to face the audience and we see Conor drift off into a slo-mo dream sequence imagining his mum before she’s ill dancing with a coffee.

Lighter-hearted moments include Conor’s grandma bringing round her old wigs for his mum to try on – one channelling Martha Reeves, another Diana Ross.

Suffering from reoccurring nightmares the teenager wakes at 12.07 like Groundhog Day (or night in this instance). Alienated from his father, who flies over from his new family home in America, and a strict grandma he turns to the dreamlike monster who appears at his bedroom window one night formed from the ancient yew tree outside. Ropes are ingeniously bound together to resemble the magical yew tree.

Bare-chested Keith Gilmore is actually quite menacing as the Monster, whether hanging down from the yew tree or walking on stage in stilts. He tells Conor three stories provided the boy will tell him a fourth in return – the truth.  “Stories are important,” he tells the teenager.

The freezing of time is a major theme. Clocks feature as projected images on the white wall from Conor’s digital alarm clock to his grandma’s old Victorian heirloom. Ropes are not only used to represent the yew tree but cleverly form a steering wheel and seat belts in an imaginary car and the swinging pendulum of grandma’s clock.

As his mum’s health deteriorates Conor is bullied at school by three classmates. Greg Bernstein’s smart Harry is the ringleader with side-kick Sully telling him in recognisable street slang: “Just ‘cos I’m a girl don’t think I won’t bang you up.” And when teacher Miss Godfrey – Sarah Quist – tells Conor in reference to Harry “a bully with top marks and charisma is still a bully – he will probably be Prime Minister one day”, it raises more than a few pertinent laughs among the adults!

With its gig-like filmic projections across the back wall, hypnotic score reminiscent of Radiohead and Massive Attack and aerialism, the overall sensory effect is stunning. Kaye Brown and Maria Omakinwa as Conor’s grandma and mother respectively both give excellent, restrained performances.

On press night the Belgrade was packed full of schoolchildren – mostly teenagers – as many pupils are studying the play for their GCSE drama. As it ended the theatre was in complete silence apart from a few sniffles. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Bring tissues.

This cathartic coming-of-age story of a young teen’s emotional journey is painfully honest and exceptionally moving.

Not surprisingly then, a monster hit.

A Monster Calls shows at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry until Saturday March 7. Tel the box office on 024 7655 3055, belgrade.co.uk

The UK tour also visits: Lyceum Theatre, SheffieldHis Majesty’s Theatre AberdeenCambridge Arts TheatreMarlowe Theatre, CanterburyKing’s Theatre, EdinburghMalvern TheatresNorwich Theatre RoyalWales Millennium Theatre, Cardiff; Theatre Royal, NewcastleYvonne Arnaud Theatre, GuildfordTheatre Royal, PlymouthCurve, Leicester and Bristol Old Vic.

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