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A Monster Calls, Old Vic - the hardest review I've written

If the interaction between Conor and the Monster is wrong it could damage the integrity of the story, diminish its impact.

Reviews can be hard to write for many reasons. Sometimes you might struggle to find the right words or worry about not doing justice to something you thought was really good.


But this review of A Monster Calls at the Old Vic is the hardest review I've had to write because the subject matter of the play touches on raw nerves.

*Potential plot spoiler alert*

When the book by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd came out a close friend, knowing I'm a fan of Ness's writing, advised against reading it for a while because my Mum had very recently died.

It wasn't sudden, my Mum was ill and we knew she was going to die. It was the same with my Dad a few years earlier.  Saying goodbye on those occasions is the hardest thing I've ever had to do.

In many ways, I was lucky losing my parents when I'd already had a good chunk of my life with them, unlike Conor, the protagonist of A Monster Calls, who is 13-years-old and dealing with a seriously sick mother.

Emotional triggers

But there is still a lot in his story that triggers painful emotional memories.

When I did finally read the book two years later it reduced me to a sobbing wreck. I saw it as a sign of a great adaptation when the film had a similar effect.

Some might say I'm a glutton for punishment going to see the film (and now the stage adaptation) but I see it as cathartic. It is cathartic.

A successful adaptation?

Still, I was nervous about how successful the stage adaptation would be.

The story is a modern fable blending fantasy and reality and has a walking, talking tree as a central character.

If the interaction between Conor and the Monster is wrong it could damage the integrity of the story, diminish its impact.

I didn't want that emotionally raw and beautiful story ruined with dodgy theatrical rendering. Would it pass the tear test, is what it boils down to.

Struggle to get emotions under control

A Monster Calls Old Vic imageAnd that brings me back to why this is the hardest review I've had to write. It's taken up until this point to get my emotions under some sort of control.

Sometimes the lid only goes back on the bottle of grief loosely.

I may have shed the odd tear writing about a sad play but nothing like this and that's probably the highest praise I can give for a piece of theatre.

Not only did watching this production have me stifling sobs, it took a good half an hour of distractions to compose myself afterwards and writing about it has brought it all back. So much so I nearly threw in the towel.

In the end, I wanted to record my thoughts about why this production gets it so right.

A Monster story

At a time when Conor's (Matthew Tennyson) Mum is getting sicker and his friends and family don't know quite how to behave around him, he is visited by the tree-like Monster.

The Monster tells Conor he has three stories to tell him then Conor will be required to tell a fourth 'and it will be the truth'.

Stuart Goodwin plays the Monster in a human form while ropes hanging down onto the stage are manipulated into tree like shapes and movements. 

He sometimes appears as part of the tree wrapped in the rope branches and sometimes Conor gets 'caught up' in it too. 

The rest of the cast sit either side of the stage, sweeping across to move props, help with costume changes, work the ropes or play the other characters in the story.

Clever choreography and acrobatics

It is smoothly done using clever choreography and some acrobatic skills.

But more than that it enriches the narrative. At times it serves to show Conor numbly and mechanically going through the motions of day to day life, at others, it feels like a building storm, little eddies of movement and rope work forming scenes like animations on a page.

Tennyson has a convincing air of flimsy, defensive detachment, anger, fear and hurt bubbling beneath and occasionally breaching the surface.

He expertly navigates switches between scenes of Conor's home life and the world of the Monster and its stories.

Terrifying and comforting

Godwin has a powerful, otherworldly, almost god-like presence and moves easily between stage, aerial and rope work his tone and delivery terrifying yet comforting at the same time.

There is a live music soundtrack with atmospheric refrains that build in tension.

While Conor's story is undoubtedly a sad one, it also explores the contradictions of human behaviour and feelings. It exposes the truth that nothing is ever as black and white as it appears and how painful the truth can sometimes be.

Watching A Monster Calls made my heart ache and I love it for that and for being such an imaginative and thoughtful production. I'm giving it five stars.

It's two hours and five minutes including an interval and it's at the Old Vic Theatre until August 25. Go and see it but take tissues.

 Other plays in London theatres that are worth seeing at the moment:

 Blood, dead cats and very dark humour in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Noel Coward Theatre

A teacher in her seductive prime - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Donmar Warehouse

 And some fun and interviews:

10 Very British Theatre Problems

What it's like being an understudy in a West End play