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A Monster Calls at the Old Vic, London – review round-up

Stuart Goodwin and Matthew Tennyson in A Monster Calls at London's Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton Stuart Goodwin and Matthew Tennyson in A Monster Calls at London's Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Book, film, play. Like fellow classics of contemporary children’s literature War Horse and Harry Potter before it, Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls has finally found its way into all three formats. Ness’ original novel was published in 2011, JA Bayona’s film adaptation was released in 2016, and now Sally Cookson’s stage version at the Old Vic completes the set.

Cookson has form adapting classics for the stage. She did The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in Leeds before Christmas, and she’s also done Treasure Island, Peter Pan, and Jane Eyre for both the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre. Her adaptation of Jaqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather was nominated for an Olivier Award in 2015, as was her version of Cinderella in 2013.

A Monster Calls, which transfers to London following a brief Bristol run earlier this year, uses a group-devised script. It stars Matthew Tennyson (great-great-great-grandson of the poet) as Conor, a teenager struggling to cope with his mother dying of cancer, and Stuart Goodwin as the walking, talking yew tree that he turns to.

Does A Monster Calls have the critics reaching for the tissues? Can Cookson capture the magic of Ness’ novel? Or is she barking up the wrong tree with this adaptation?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

A Monster Calls – Bring the Tissues

The idea for A Monster Calls originally came from Siobhan Dowd, but she died before she could write it, leaving that to Ness. The surreal story follows Conor as he watches his mother waste way and is visited at night by a giant, storytelling tree-monster.

It is, according to Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★), “a devastating articulation of the fury that comes with grief, bound up in a nifty magical-realist chassis”. But how devastating is it on stage?

“Director Sally Cookson taps into a very deep well of human grief, here felt by a 13-year-old boy whose mother has cancer,” sobs Daisy Bowie-Sell (What’s On Stage, ★★★★). “By the end, even the most hard-hearted of audience members will be left in a pool of tears on the theatre floor.”

“It gets right to the truth of how we deal with loss,” Bowie-Sell continues. “It’s an upsetting watch, yes, but a truthful, hopeful and human one too.”

“Bring tissues, lots of tissues,” warns Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★★★★). “I’ve rarely seen a show that did a better job of getting us to look death and disaster and despair in the face alongside its hero. It deserves to be a monster hit.”

It’s “a wondrous feat of group-devised communal storytelling” that “does rich justice to the book”, according to Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★), and “a wondrous thing” according to Tim Bano (The Stage, ★★★★).

“Ness’ story offers no resolution, and no easy escape,” blubs Bano. “It invites us to embrace the fact that grief is complicated, full of paradox, and unending.”

“This beautiful, heartbreaking show is a cathartic story not just for children but for anyone who has experience the raw pain of loss,” wails Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★).

“Since the monster’s message concerns emotional honesty, I confess I couldn’t share the snuffles and sobs around me at the story’s end,” comments the stone-hearted Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★), the only critic with dry eyes come the curtain. “To borrow a phrase of Keats, I felt it clearly had ‘a palpable design upon us’.”

Stuart Goodwin in A Monster Calls. Photo: Tristram Kenton

A Monster Calls – Making a Monster

Cookson’s literary adaptations are generally ensemble-led, inventive and innovative, and she’s joined here by designer Michael Vale and composer Benji Bower. How exactly do they make Ness’ monstrous tale work on stage?

“Cookson and the company’s adaptation is a fluid, ensemble piece which relies on bodies, rather than sets to tell a contemporary story shot through with the magic of ancient myths,” says Bowie-Sell. “It’s an elegant yet simple way of storytelling and Cookson is very much doing what she does best. She has created a cast who entirely become the story.”

“Live music provides a mercurial array of pulsating electronica, plangent piano and much else, while a metaphorically suggestive tangle of ropes, gathered into position by a physically symbiotic, multitasking company of 10, evoke looming trunk, swaying boughs and fierce psychological tugs-of-war,” describes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★).

“What really impressed me was the wit and elegance of Cookson’s staging and Michael Vale’s design,” writes Billington. “The visual concept is based on strands of rope that are twisted and tangled to form the gnarled branches of a yew tree, out of which Stuart Goodwin’s monster appears.”

“It is Cookson’s gift for creating a world out of simple props and actors’ bodies that gives the show its drive,” he observes, while Taylor praises a production of “great physical wit and cunning simplicity”.

Some critics, though, aren’t particularly impressed with Cookson’s choreographic approach. Bano reckons that “the production gets bogged down with long patches of movement and montage on the bare white stage, which interrupt the flow of the story more than they aid it”, while Lukowski complains of “an abundance of bells and whistles.”

“Sally Cookson is a playful and inventive director known for her all-encompassing use of an ensemble of performers, but here her favoured methods sometimes look shaky,” assesses Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★★)

“There’s a lot of effort and detail, but for much of the time it’s too much: too much movement and certainly too much music from the onstage band, as barely a line is spoken without emphatic underscoring.”

Matthew Tennyson and Stuart Goodwin in A Monster Calls at Old Vic, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

A Monster Calls – A Monster of a Performance

At the heart of Ness’ story is Conor, a young kid struggling to cope. He’s portrayed in Cookson’s adaptation by Matthew Tennyson, whose biggest credit to date is the lead in the RSC’s staging of Oscar Wilde’s Salome last year.

“Matthew Tennyson’s performance as Conor is immensely affecting, often through the most minimal means – his head downcast, pale features impassive, eyes sorrowful, body rigid, as if in sore need of a hug,” says Cavendish.

“He captures the vulnerability and solitude of a victimised 13-year-old,” agrees Billington. “His eyes often seem to be fixed on the middle distance, as if reluctant to engage with other people. Yet Tennyson also displays a teenage stroppiness to the moralising monster, and the boy’s complex mixture of guilt and love towards his ailing mother.”

“Tennyson’s performance as Conor is extraordinarily moving,” chimes Taylor. “You completely forget that you are watching an adult actor, so brilliantly does he capture the sensitivity of a lost and lonely teenager, tormented by his intertwined feelings of guilt and love towards his mother. With his drooping head and pallid, determinedly impassive features, he looks as is he wishes he could opt out of this cruel world. But there’s not a moment of false pathos in his portrayal.”

There’s nothing but praise for Tennyson, in fact. He plays Conor “perfectly” according to Bano, “beautifully” according to Bowie-Sell, and with “intensity and honesty” according to Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★).

A Monster Calls at London’s Old Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton

A Monster Calls – Is it any good?

Four stars from The Guardian. Four stars from The Telegraph. Four stars from The Independent. It’s fours across the board for A Monster Calls, with one handy five from The Times chucked in, too.

The critics concur that Ness’ novel is hugely moving on stage, confronting death and grief with devastating directness, and that Tennyson supplies a stellar, sorrowful performance. Cookson’s direction is more divisive – some think she gets the magic and the realism just right, others think she’s too fussy or too slow.

It’s a hit. But not a monster hit.

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