A Monster Calls at the Old Vic online
The narrative of Patrick Ness’s novel plunges into the dark and truthful corridors of nightmares and visions. Sally Cookson intriguingly concocts an amalgam of audio and acrobatic elements to conjure a world in between fantasy and reality. Although this reviewer believes the effect would have enveloped the audience in a rather different way if experienced live – with all the lights going down and the loud thumps and clicks – the digital performance is striking too, and thanks to privileged close-ups shots of the cast, remains dramatic and powerful.
Conor (Matthew Tennyson) is tormented at night by the same scary dreams, until one day, at 12:07, a monster – the yew tree (Stuart Goodwin) standing next to their house – pays him a visit. He makes a deal: the ancient creature will tell three tales on three different nights, and in return, Conor will have to tell his own true story. During the day, the young protagonist has to deal with frictions with his classmates and, most importantly, with the illness of his mother (Marianne Oldham). There is an elephant in the room when it comes to the future of this family, but it is never spelt out clearly, especially by Conor.
Chairs and ropes are the only props. The stage is invaded by a game of shadow and light, flashing in the scene changes and key twists. The sounds, monopolised by techno and electric tones, play a majestic role. Although slightly undermined by overly melodramatic notes towards the end, the musical elements, together with coloured projections, fill up the stage, amplifying the shapes and visions.
Tennyson shines in his absorbing performance. This is well-matched with the brash attitude of John Leader, and the apparently detached behaviour of Selina Cadell actually brings balance to the group. Goodwin plays on a different level, mastering the physical execution required for his enactment of the tree, while his face, though not at the forefront, inspires a sense of humanity to the so-called monster.
The emotional weight overall feels excessive: this is an utterly sad scenario where not even a vague happy ending can be foreseen – other than a patchy miracle. The plot tackles loss, forgiveness, mental health and relationships without labelling any of them (greatly thanks to the monster’s tales). However, everything merges together, swirling within the same gloomy spiral. From the midway point, the production risks letting everything hang on these mournful segments. The pieces come together, eventually, in a modest way. The fabled stories and the intense and fierce character of Conor, which ultimately comes out in full force, are what stays with viewers long after the two-hour performance ends.
Photo: Manuel Harlan