“A Monster Calls” produced by Patrick Ness and taken from the novel by Siobhan Dowd is theatre at its best. In my view it will come to be seen as a classic and it’s suitable for adults and children over 10. Mixing psychological realism and mythic fable it creates an extraordinary space in which for two hours we can all reflect on love, life and death. We see the world through the eyes of Connor O’Malley (the brilliant Matthew Tennyson) a thirteen year old boy whose Mum (Marianne Oldham) has cancer. In the play’s opening scene Mum and Connor, (who appears twice, firstly as a baby in his mother’s arms and then as a thirteen year old watching) talk to a 3,000 year old Yew Tree. She tells him how special it is and that it will always be there for him. Fast forward thirteen years and Connor is getting dressed for school. The play works through this shift from the everyday to the magical.
Like Jack and his Beanstalk, Connor has his Yew Tree. It wakes him every night at 12.07 and tells him stories. Connor in typical teenage vein mocks The Tree/Monster and complains that he doesn’t want to hear his boring stories. But The Monster (Stuart Goodwin) insists. In a brilliant piece of stage craft The Tree is represented by several PE ropes hanging from a metal scaffolding. The ropes are transformed into the shape of a tree. Stuart climb’s up and merges with the ropes to become the face and voice of the Tree. It’s breathtaking magical stuff. Stuart’s deep and evocative voice gives The Tree added power. Connor is captured by the ropes, serpent-like and forced to listen. The three stories The Tree tells are all folk tales but they provide parallels for Connor’s life now. In particular they help Connor to comprehend death.
The psychological realism of “A Monster Calls” is brilliantly realised. Connor’s family situation, his mother with cancer, his annoying Grandma (Selina Cadell) and his father (Felix Hayes) is well drawn. Connor is pretending everything is going to be alright but inside he knows otherwise. Matthew Tennyson gives an outstanding performance. He shows the impossible situation Connor finds himself in. A thirteen year old facing the death of his mother. The effects of divorce on Connor are poignantly highlighted in a showdown with his Dad in which Connor reminds him that his new family in America need him. It’s a painful piece of truth telling. Some of the best scenes in “A Monster Call” are those set in school. The standout performance here is from John Leader as the bully Harry. With his sidekicks Anton (Hammed Animashaun) and Sully (Georgia Frost) he stops Connor after school and begins to terrorise him. He wants to know who bought those shoes for him? It’s the best portrayal of bullying I’ve seen on stage. Look out for John Leader – a huge talent.
These two strands of psychological realism and magical fable come together in the last half hour to create a truly wonderful finale. Stuart walks on stage on stilts and insists that Connor open up and tell his story. A walking talking tree. In a scene of unbearable tenderness, with his Mum attached to a morphine drip, he tells Connor that he doesn’t need to say anything as she already knows what he wants to say. “A Monster Calls” ends as it begun but with son holding Mother. A deeply moving moment, not a dry eye in the house. “A Monster Calls” is the best introduction to the theatre for children and young people. An ideal opportunity for grandparents to bond with their grandchildren and pass on the habit of art.
Review by John O’Brien and on until the 25th August 2018