Theatre review – A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls11There are some stories that seem seeded in the emotional centres of our imaginations, where grief is almost made bearable by the multitude of disguises we hide it behind. In Patrick Ness’ exquisitely painful A Monster Calls, the stories themselves take on characters, revealing truths about our lead, 13-year-old Conor, while offering him a way to grapple with the tragedy unfolding around him.

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Director Sally Cookson has taken this tale, itself inspired by an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, and worked with the ensemble and writer in the room Adam Peck to create a play that gives voice to our darkest fears.

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Conor’s mum (Marianne Oldham, shown left) is seriously ill, and everybody knows it. What they don’t know, because he’s working so hard to hide the fact, is how much the situation is taking its toll on him.

In the role of Conor, actor Matthew Tennyson is extraordinarily expressive, embodying the fear, rage and determined self-delusion with heartbreaking vulnerability. Unusually, the ensemble remains on stage throughout, offering the impression of a world populated by unseen beings who guide or trip us – when Conor needs a bowl for his breakfast cereal, one is held out to him, and his school tie is placed unceremoniously over his head. It highlights the skill of the cast, as well as the director and set designer Michael Vale, that this seems at once normal and oddly moving.

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Vale has devised a set that leaves our imaginations free to unfurl, where chairs and ropes perform a multitude of functions.

While the monster itself is performed with visceral otherworldliness by Stuart Goodwin, the immense, ancient yew tree he represents takes shape thanks to an assortment of artfully strung ropes, which the actors clamber through with unnerving agility.

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From the start we find ourselves in the midst of Conor’s nightmares, where screened visuals, the physicality of the ensemble, and powerful use of sound, plunges us into a storm-torn horror that leaves the actor, and us, fighting for breath.

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Cookson has created a skin-shiveringly immersive show, aided by a soundscape from Benji Bower and Will Bower, that adds infinite atmospheric layers. We, the audience, may remain in our seats, but as Conor battles demons, both real and metaphorical, including a trio of school yard bullies (John Leader, Hammed Animashaun and Georgia Frost) we’re pulled along with him every step of the way.

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Selina Cadell is compelling as the grandmother torn between her own distress over her daughter’s illness and the challenges of a largely non-communicative, anguished grandson. Her home is signified by a swinging pendulum and relentless ticking that probably feels familiar to anyone who’s ever visited a grandparent’s house. The ticking heightens tension, which the possibility of an actor being accidentally flattened by the vast pendulum only adds to.

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Time is a prevalent theme in the story, with the monster only ever arriving at 12.07, and the terrible sense of time running out for Conor’s mother.

Throughout the play, this is the awful truth that no one quite dares speak. And yet, as the monster reminds Conor, right and wrong, true and false, and, above all, belief, are all complicated, ambiguous things. Not unlike an ageless yew tree that walks when called, represented by an armful of rope.

A Monster Calls is on at Bristol Old Vic until Sat 16th June 2018. Suitable for ages 10+.  Find out more.

Seen or read anything interesting recently? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a review, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com.

Writing prompt – busker

Street performer by Judy DarleyAt this time of year, magical performances begin unfolding on every city centre street. It’s a touch of the bizarre that I love to see, but it does make me curious.

What could lure or drive a person to such a precarious, public way of making a living? Or are they investment bankers in the week and unicyclists on weekends?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to judydarley(at)iCloud.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

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Book review – Unthology 10

Unthology10 coverThe tenth instalment in Unthank Book’s excellent series of Unthologies is all about mental and physical journeys, and people on the brink of savagery.

An encounter at a playground has as much unspoken barbarity seething beneath the surface as a meeting with a bear, and a flight on a mythical beast. The characters in the tales selected by editor Ashley Stokes and Robin Jones have little to loose, which makes them all the more compelling. More than one have demons on their shoulders, and reckless bravado seems par for the course within a few pages. It’s a dizzying read, full of bile, venom and tantalising swoops of the imagination. These are worlds to visit, and then disentangle yourself from, breathless and relieved.

In K.M. Elkes’s Ursa Minor, the brutality of IVF treatment brings a primitive urge to the surface.

In The Best Way To Kill A Butterfly by Hannah Stevens, that urge breaks through as something enchanting is turned ugly with shocking speed: “At dinner parties it became customary to have butterfly centrepieces. The insects would be pinned to cork and cased behind beautiful frames.”

Looking at the way crazes take hold and how we can succumb or resist, this story feels like it’s about far more than an influx of insects, examining instead our desire to possess, and to belong.

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