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 The Theatreguide.London Review

A Monster Calls
Old Vic Theatre    Summer 2018

If you're going to present any play in a non-traditional way, the mode you choose has to enrich and enhance the text as a more conventional staging wouldn't. Otherwise, all the gimmickry comes across as merely gimmickry, showing off your cleverness for the sake of showing off. 

I am afraid that far too little of this company-devised and Sally Cookson-directed adaptation of Patrick Ness's children's book seems really to serve the text. 

Put another way, Cookson and her cast never convince us that this mode of staging is necessary, that it is the way the book wants to be presented, rather than being imposed arbitrarily on the material. 

Ness's book is the dark and frequently deliberately obscure tale of a boy whose mother is dying of cancer and who is haunted by nightmares. 

It doesn't take Freud to make sense out of that, and the particular form and purpose of the nightmares, though unclear for a while, are eventually also psychologically simple.

(Not to give away too much of a spoiler, they help him come to grips with his mother's impending death and his own confused feelings about it.) 

The dreams are of a demonic spirit in a nearby yew tree, who tells the boy three parables whose common theme is that people are complicated and sometimes self-contradictory, on the way to making the boy accept his own ambivalent feelings. 

The performance mode that director and cast have developed is a modified Story Theatre style, something I normally enjoy and respond to.  

There's an almost bare stage, with everyone but Matthew Tennyson as the lad doubling and tripling roles while also being faceless background figures. Mime, choreographed movement, acrobatics, song and a music score ranging from classical to techno all establish that this is not going to be a realistic work presented realistically. 

And some of it, like a bunch of hanging ropes being gathered at the base to form a spreading yew tree, is visually clever. But it is almost never more than clever. 

When the Monster played by Stuart Goodwin hangs among the ropes while his voice is amplified, we're watching an actor with a body mic and a safety harness, not an evocation of a nightmare. 

Meanwhile, the simple storytelling is muddied if not muddled. It is part of Patrick Ness's purpose that the Monster's parables be gnomic, their meaning only cumulatively realised. But a theatre audience's psychology is different from a reader's, and if you make us go too long without knowing what's going on, you'll lose us. 

On a different level, a kind of subplot of the boy being bullied at school is never really integrated into the main action in this telling. It is clearly part of the boy's problem, but as presented it adds little to the message about self-acceptance. 

And so, like so many of the staging effects, it seems tacked on rather than necessary. 

I suspect that those who come to the theatre already knowing and loving Patrick Ness's book will find more to like here. But it will be because of the strengths of the book that come through despite the production, rather than thanks to it.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  A Monster Calls - Old Vic Theatre 2018  
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