Review: A Monster Calls – Bristol Old Vic


Wild, warm, witty & ruthless storytelling with wondrous stagecraft that wreaks havoc with your heart

‘Stories are wild creatures… when you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?’ Sally Cookson’s stories on stage are wild creatures; creatures with warm, witty, and ruthless storytelling and wondrous stagecraft, and they wreak havoc with your heart. Using storytelling to face the truth for one youngster struggling with grief, A Monster Calls, from the novel by Patrick Ness, is theatrical magic, where fantasy meets mortality with magnificent effect.

Devised under Cookson’s imaginative and accomplished direction, the performance is whimsical yet weighted in a wonderful echo of the original text’s magical realism. Yet, as in its treatment of the malignant tumour in Marianne Oldham’s terminally optimistic mother, this is the monster unmasked: Michael Vale’s white set is very much a bare, clinical cancer ward, but it bleeds and beats and breathes with movement and images, Benji and Will Bower’s electric music, and the boughs and roots that blossom from ropes and imagination into the yew tree that Stuart Goodwin’s green-man-meets-guardian-angel monster emerges from. All the craft, from the aerial to the aural, is left uncovered, and it lets the catharsis come without conceit.

The three stories are no comforting fairytales or straightforward moralistic fables: they’re as chaotic, frightening, and confusing as the truth that Matthew Tennyson’s believably boyish Connor must confront, but they are beautifully told. From princes to apothecaries, they’re meticulous and merciless mythic epics with imperfect protagonists that lie and leave and let go like people in real life, especially Connor’s faraway father – a fantastic Felix Hayes – and Selina Cadell’s grieving, grating grandmother.

The stories, like the ropes that support them and the sublime ensemble that surround them, intertwine and then unwind into the real world: the apothecary’s anger erupts in Grandma’s immaculate living room, and John Leader’s brilliant bully is victim to the invisible man’s violence. Even the monster, otherworldly as he may seem, morphs into something more human, a mere man with berries about his neck, after the final nightmare, abandoning his aerial stunts and stilts for a humble embrace. And it’s that humanity that’s at the heart of the havoc.

Bristol Old Vic, 1st June 2018, cast: Matthew Tennyson, Stuart Goodwin, Marianne Oldham, image: Manuel Harlan, A Monster Calls at Bristol Old Vic & The Old Vic

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