A Monster Calls Review | The Lowry | Manchester
How can a boy beat a monster?
Siobhan Dowd’s untimely death in 2007 left her unfinished, fifth manuscript in the capable hands of Patrick Ness who has since developed her idea into a novel, seen it adapted into a film (2017) and finally, reworked for the stage. Conjuring up haunting visions of death whilst grappling with our limited control of emotions, the fantastical tale of a thirteen-year-old awoken at night by a monster, is rooted by its honesty and heart.
The 2011 novel has been reimagined for the stage by Adam Peck in a pacy, yet grounded production that plays with the isolation and procedures navigated alongside a family member dealing with a terminal illness. We follow Conor (played by Ammar Duffus) as he balances his mother’s cancer treatment, his distant father, schoolwork and the monster that has taken the form of a yew tree outside his window. The fairy tale is a down to earth narrative centred around self-actualisation and facing your fears. However, the Old Vic production employs a gritty collection of movement, pulling on its cast of characters to freeform part of the set and its props, together with projection, dance and live music.
The shows abstract set is reminiscent of A Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, as Conor’s monster entwines with the ensemble cast, allowing his temperament to be projected onto the stage. As Conor’s journey brews visceral battles with the yew monster (played by Keith Gilmore), Duffus interacts with overhanging ropes and pulleys that make the trees staging appear alive and untameable.
Director Sally Cookson shapes an inventive and memorable production, connecting Conor and the audience to his otherworldly experience using various natural techniques. Cookson’s expansive, open set design brings the stories organic elements together by weaving the cast in as the props. By enabling the story and props to move fluidly together on stage, Cookson gives the narrative a dream-like quality, with no long-lasting control for its lead. With the story played entirely through Conor’s eyes, the simple but effected show captures the essence of being a constrained teen facing uncontrollable fear, using little more than rope, its cast and live musicians.
Accepting the monster within, Duffus’ passionate performance as Conor brings an exhaustively distinctive tone to the piece, shaped by Dan Canham’s choreography. Conor’s slow discovery uncovers untameable movements and dance that reaches out to the audience to highlight how Conor’s internal demons are as destructive as the physical monster terrorising him outside his window. Accompany the show with free programmes, workshops and discussions for the teenagers amongst the crowd, the productions brutal honesty brings a new type of fairy tale to the Lowry audience, with open themes for debate.
A Monster Calls has a marvellous and mysterious veneer that is perfect for audiences of all ages. Its attempts to capture the chaos and confusion surrounding death is surprisingly subtle, working to help viewers understand the universal abandon and multitude of confused emotions that must be dealt with during times of tragedy.