A Monster Calls at the Old Vic
God, A Monster Calls is tricky to review. The final half an hour is so raw and honest about the ugly side of grief that it might as well be sponsored by Kleenex. But (whisper it) the rest of the devised production isn’t great, keeping a lot of the worst aspects of Patrick Ness’ original book – inspired by an idea from the dearly departed Siobhan Dowd – while adding a few troublesome quirks of its own.
The most basic problem, and the one that traces directly back to the novelist, is that the narrative is over-stuffed with emotional obstacles for Conor (Matthew Tennyson) to clear. He’s bullied at school, has fallen out with his best friend, has an absent father and doesn’t like his grandmother. All that before factoring in the actual issue: that his mother is dying of cancer. Though each relationship is meant to emphasise his loneliness, closing off potential avenues in which he could talk about his grief, they end up diluting the overwhelming loss at the story’s centre. It’s a framework too obviously contrived to ensure that the only confidant the kid has is an ancient, fable-spewing yew tree.
One thing director Sally Cookson does get right is the monster. By avoiding a more traditionally fantastical design the production prevents even a hint of escapism from creeping into Conor’s interactions with the creature. Instead, he is a man – a terrifying man, maybe the man that the young protagonist needs to be, or the dad he needs to talk to, or the adult he needs to be honest with him – entangled in thick ropes, like both the ties of family and the noose of grief. Conor’s fairy-tale episodes aren’t the teenager fleeing from his troubled home life; they’re the manifestation of an anger and hurt that can barely be spoken.
Sadly, this theatrical restraint is paired with a bafflingly large amount of busy work elsewhere. In isolation, so many parts of the play are impressive, from Dan Canham’s movement to Michael Vale’s set. When these elements are taken together, however, one can’t help but feel that Cookson too aggressively telegraphs what the audience is meant to be feeling at any given moment. Benji Bower’s live score – like a cross between Radiohead’s electronic output and Bon Iver’s more autotune-heavy work – is especially harmful in this regard, its insistent presence flattening everything out.
This isn’t to downplay the production’s brutal lack of sentimentality; the second half is often unbearable in its sadness. But making a room of people cry at the death of a 13-year-old boy’s mother isn’t exactly a challenge. And it also doesn’t discount the two-ish hours that came before, the lack of cohesive vision for what this adaption should feel like creating a disjointed, frustrating journey to an unavoidable, and unavoidably heart-breaking, ending.
Photo: Manuel Harlan
A Monster Calls is at the Old Vic from 7th July until 25th August 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here