‘Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?’ – A Monster Calls
A seemingly poignant quote in the present culture where mental health and the #bekind campaign continue to gain momentum and hold the spotlight.
It’s 12.07am. The Monster’s stories still running riot in my mind.
Sally Cookson’s thought-provoking and Olivier award-winning production of A Monster Calls, makes its appearance at Nottingham Theatre Royal this week as part of its UK Tour and certainly encourages a varied emotional response from the audience with its Brechtian style and intense performances; contrasting between the harsh reality of impending death and the complex process of grief and hidden emotions.
Based on the piercing children’s fantasy novel by Patrick Ness – an idea inherited from Siobhan Dowd (who, herself, died of breast cancer before she was able to write the book) A Monster Calls tells the story of brave, bullied Conor (Ammar Duffus), his terminally ill, yet dangerously hopeful Mum (Maria Omakinwa) and a Monster who arrives to draw out Conor’s internal monsters via three ‘fairytales’ at 12.07 each night.
The stark, minimalist set design creates an ideal blank canvas for a plot that leans towards the importance of exploring the nature of truth within storytelling.
A mass of thick, entangled ropes hung from the lighting rig towering above the stage becomes the all-consuming yew tree, with the ensemble slickly executing some skilful physical theatre as the Monster (Keith Gilmore) weaves his way anthropomorphically through the web-like chaos of its branches.
The cast multi-role an array of characters weaving in and out of Conor’s reality and sub-conscious as he slowly comes to terms with his internal battle and suppressed guilt over his feelings towards his mother’s illness.
Ammar Duffus and Keith Gilmore lead the way in their compelling interpretations of Conor and the Monster, leaving themselves and the audience physically and emotionally exhausted with both their individual and joint journeys towards Conor’s revelatory moment. Gilmore impresses with his merciless presence of fear and anger until his final moments where he almost transforms into a father-like image of support and reassurance.
Kaye Brown delivers a subtly tortured performance as Grandma; coming to terms with the impending death of her daughter, whilst remaining stoic in her responses to grandson, Conor. Her reaction to the destructive climax of Act One signifies a real turning point as emotion overrides style for the first time in the piece.
But this really is an ensemble piece and the success of the production is reliant on every player on the stage, including the two Musicians recreating Benji Bower’s jarring, punctuating score in full view of the audience; very much supporting the complex, devised nature of the piece.
Chaotic yet smooth physical theatre sequences and atmospheric soundscaping accentuate the action throughout, reminding the audience that we are primarily there to think, not feel. This is notably successful in the nightmare sequences that precede each 12.07am arrival of the Monster.
A Monster Calls is a story of the deep rooted fear that co-exists with love. It twists its way into the complex branches of hidden emotions, grief and the exploration of truth; predominantly outlining that, “There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between”…because “Humans are complicated beasts.”
Resounding applause and a full standing ovation (interspersed with sniffles and tear-stained cheeks) embodied the appreciation for both an excellent production and an unquestionable life-lesson.
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