×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: ‘A Monster Calls’

A story about complexity staged with simplicity, Sally Cookson's devised version of Patrick Ness' child's-eye view of cancer ultimately cuts through.

With:
Hammed Animashaun, Nandi Bhebhe, Selina Cadell, Matt Costain, Georgia Frost, Stuart Goodwin, Felix Hayes, Jonathan Holby, John Leader, Marianne Oldham, Matthew Tennyson, Witney White, Tessa Wood.

A Monster Calls” offers a child’s-eye view of cancer. Patrick Ness’ children’s novel, the winner of the 2012 Carnegie Medal and adapted into a 2016 film that starred Felicity Jones, sits with a 13-year-old boy trying to make sense of the disease laying waste to his mother — a disease that rarely, if ever, makes sense. Visited nightly by a storytelling monster, he slowly comes to appreciate that life isn’t a fairytale; it follows no plot. It’s a story about complexity that’s staged, in Sally Cookson’s Old Vic production, with the utmost simplicity.

That is, in the end, its great strength: it allows a sentimental story to cut through with sincerity. For a long while, however, it merely looks slimline: a stock gallery of school bullies, sleepless nights and scary monsters that speak in deep, echoing booms. Childhood, at first, seems the stuff of cliché: all messy bedrooms and deskbound daydreams. Cancer too: a frail woman in a headscarf heaving into a bowl, drugs that don’t work, IV drips on wheels. Slowly, all of that gets shaded in. Cookson shows there’s more to everything than might meet the eye.

On a bare white stage with ropes hanging down from the flies, Matthew Tennyson’s Connor stands looking out, blank. He breathes. A chorus looks on from the sides of the stage, leaving him isolated and alone, weighed down by the nightmares that come every night: flashing strobes, piercing cracks, juddering, physical fits.  He floats through his days, half-present, as lessons drift by and bullies lay in. All Connor can think of is his mother’s condition.

Cookson captures the enormity of cancer and the way it blots everything else out. As Connor runs through his routine, individual items — blazer, cereal bowl, milk — spring into his hand, as if he can only focus on one thing at a time. The white stage makes the whole world fall away, so that only Connor and cancer seem to exist. With no-one to talk to — not the grandmother (Selina Cadell) putting on a brave, breezy face, not the father (Felix Scott) who flies in from America to offer reassurances, not the mother (Marianne Oldham) clinging to the belief that she can beat the disease — Connor bottles all his fears up. Tennyson gives a performance of eloquent restraint; hardly a flicker of emotion crosses his face, just blinking incomprehension, until it all eventually breaks.

Ness’ novel challenges the stories we tell ourselves — not only about cancer, but about the way the world works. At 12:07 each night, Stuart Goodwin’s monster, the spirit of the Yew tree outside Connor’s window, arrives to unfold fables that disrupt conventional morals: a murderous prince who scapegoats his stepmother to save his kingdom; a pastor who betrays his beliefs to save his daughters from death. Bald and barefooted, shirtless but for a bead of berries round his neck, he’s the spitting image of a Siddhartha — a wise man who sees the world as it is: no goodies, no baddies, no just deserts. Each time, he winds individual ropes up to make a tree, as if gathering strands into a single whole.

If it’s not always clear why the stories are onstage, save as a vehicle for stock theatre tricks, Cookson gradually brings time to the fore. Ness’s story is dotted with clocks — alarms in the morning, grandfather clocks in the hall. At one point, a pendulum swings across the stage, and Benji Bowers’ two-man score switches between slow, sighing strings and disjointed electro beats. Cancer, Cookson suggests, plays havoc with time. It can make days seem like decades, and two weeks to live seem like no time at all. Connor, above all, wants to hold it still, and it’s telling he pulls his grandmother’s precious clock to pieces. As the monster’s stories show us, each of us has a different sense of time — and so, of death.

London Theater Review: 'A Monster Calls'

Old Vic Theatre, London; 1067 seats; £50, $65 top. Opened, reviewed July 17, 2018. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Production: An Old Vic production of a play in two acts by Sally Cookson and company, adapted from a novel by Patrick Ness.

Creative: Directed by Sally Cookson. Writer in the room, Adam Peck; design, Michael Vale; costume design, Katie Sykes; lighting, Aideen Malone; sound, Mike Beer; video, Dick Straker; movement direction, Dan Canham; puppetry, Laura Cubitt; aerial, Matt Costain; fights, Rachel Brown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.

Cast: Hammed Animashaun, Nandi Bhebhe, Selina Cadell, Matt Costain, Georgia Frost, Stuart Goodwin, Felix Hayes, Jonathan Holby, John Leader, Marianne Oldham, Matthew Tennyson, Witney White, Tessa Wood.

More Legit

  • Could Anyone Follow ‘Springsteen on Broadway’?

    Could Anyone Follow 'Springsteen on Broadway'? Here Are Five Things They'd Need (Guest Column)

    After 235-odd shows, with grosses in excess of $100 million, a Special Tony Award and a hotly anticipated Netflix special debuting Saturday, “Springsteen on Broadway” is an unprecedented Broadway blockbuster. As with any success in entertainment, the rush to replicate The Boss’ one-man show reportedly is under way, with a consortium led by Live Nation, CAA [...]

  • Clueless review

    Off Broadway Review: 'Clueless' the Musical

    How does a musical stage adaptation of Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film comedy of oblivious privileged teens, “Clueless,” play in the era of female empowerment and millennial engagement? True, the principal skills of lead teen Cher Horowitz are the superficial ones of mall shopping and makeovers. But her sweet spirit and independence, plus some added P.C. relevance, [...]

  • Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary,

    Ley Line Unveils Brian Wilson Documentary, 'Hugo Cabret' Musical

    Producers Tim Headington and Theresa Steele Page have unveiled Ley Line Entertainment with a Brian Wilson documentary and a “Hugo Cabret” musical in the works. Ley Line said it’s a content development, production, and financing company with projects spanning film, television, stage, and music. Headington financed and produced “The Young Victoria,” “Argo,” “Hugo,” and “World [...]

  • Daniel Radcliffe

    Listen: How Broadway Made Daniel Radcliffe a Better Actor

    Acting onstage has been a regular part of Daniel Radcliffe’s career for more than a decade — and the “Harry Potter” star says there’s a good reason for that: It’s made him better. “It gives me a lot of confidence as an actor, which is not always something that I’ve felt,” Radcliffe said on the [...]

  • The Jungle review

    Off Broadway Review: 'The Jungle'

    With the rumbling of semis careening by and the sound of Middle Eastern music in the distance, “The Jungle” aims to vividly immerse audiences into the world of the real-life migrant and refugee camp of the same name. By telling the story of the Jungle’s creation in Calais, France, in 2015, and its eventual destruction [...]

  • Hillary Clinton'Network' play opening night, New

    Hillary Clinton Attends Opening of Broadway's 'Network'

    A 1976 film might not be expected to translate seamlessly to Broadway in 2018, but for the cast and creative team behind “Network,” which premiered Thursday night with Hillary Clinton in the audience, the story still feels uncomfortably close to home. “It was a satire then, and now it’s documentary realism,” said Lee Hall, who [...]

  • 'Network' Review: Bryan Cranston Stars on

    Broadway Review: 'Network' With Bryan Cranston

    The 1976 film “Network” won four Academy Awards, including best original screenplay for writer Paddy Chayefsky, for its blistering portrayal of an American society fueled by greed and bloated on corruption. A haggard Peter Finch took the best actor trophy for his harrowing performance as Howard Beale, a TV newsman who is so disgusted by [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content