As the Oliver-award-winning A Monster Calls arrives at The Lowry, Holly Williams chats to author, Patrick Ness and director, Sally Cookson to find out more about the inspiration behind the magical story.
Sometimes, a story feels like it belongs to one person, who lets us in on it. But sometimes, a story is a shared thing – passed on, transformed, evolving. Always growing, and finding new shoots, new roots.
So it’s proved with A Monster Calls. Patrick Ness’s young adult book was published in 2011, with illustrations by Jim Kay; Ness won the prestigious Carnegie medal, and Kay won the Greenaway award. It was made into a movie starring Liam Neeson in 2017, and then adapted for the stage by Sally Cookson at the Old Vic in London in 2018. Now, that production is being revived for a country-wide tour, with an all-new cast.
A Monster Calls is about Conor, a 13-year-old boy who knows his mother is seriously ill – and whose fear grows when no-one will really talk to him about it. Then late one night, a monster pays him a visit: the enormous, ancient yew tree in his garden comes ferociously to life, and begins to tell Conor a series of harsh fables, that ultimately help him face the truth of his situation.
As a meditation on our fear of loss, our inability to discuss death, and on the power of storytelling to help us make sense of the world, Ness’s book struck an almighty chord. It became a favourite with readers far beyond the young adult bracket, and the play achieved glowing reviews – and plenty of warnings about packing hankies – when it burst vividly onto the stage.
But A Monster Calls really starts before even Ness: he inherited Conor from fellow YA author, Siobhan Dowd, who had outlined the plot to her agent – but died of breast cancer before she was able to write it.
“Siobhan wrote all her books knowing that her breast cancer was terminal; this was going to be her next book, but she passed away sooner than expected,” recalls Ness. “My editor, Denise Johnstone-Burt, didn’t want the idea to disappear.”
Still, when she approached Ness, his initial reaction was to say no. He didn’t want to write a memorial, an earnest tribute. But then a central image of the book – the moment when Conor comes out of a dream to discover he’s smashed up his grandmother’s living room – came to Ness, fully-formed.
That image “felt really right”, he recalls: “it had everything this story needs at its heart: the anger, the frustration, the transgression. I said ok: I’ll do this if I can do exactly what [Dowd] would have done, which is let the story grow wild, and see where it goes. And they said yes!”
For Ness, it was as if Dowd had passed a baton to him – “and my job was to go run with it and make trouble. Because that’s what her books were like, so smart and mischievous and unexpected.” And he considers it a collaborative venture, even in book form, insisting on the importance Kay’s original illustrations too: “there were three of us in the book.”
So it’s unsurprising that Ness was so willing to pass the baton again, to Cookson. He was a fan of her theatre work, which often takes a resourceful, highly imaginative devised approach to adapting literary works, having seen her productions of Peter Pan and Jane Eyre.
The job of figuring out how to tell a story on stage is done with a company – a collective approach that seemed to suit A Monster Calls.
“A collaborative novel is rare,” acknowledges Ness. “But the idea that in A Monster Calls, we created something bigger than the three of us made it feel like the kind of story that could keep being collaborated on.”
Cookson had quite the personal journey with the book herself. A friend recommended it, and she’d devoured it over a weekend.
“I instantly knew that I wanted to turn it into a piece theatre,” she says. “It packs such an emotional punch. It’s a story that celebrates stories, but it also gets under the skin of what we do as a society when it comes to talking about important stuff – which is close up. And it’s also such a beautiful, fantastical, magical story as well, it’s got all the elements I love.”
So, she was heartbroken to discover that the theatre rights were not available – so much so, that she struggled to let go, and continued to carry her copy of Ness’s book around with her. About a year and a half later, Matthew Warchus – artistic director of the Old Vic – invited her in to discuss making a show. He showed her a list of potential books to adapt – and top was A Monster Calls.
Cookson reached into her bag, and pulled out her by now dog-eared copy, and the decision was made.
Not that it is an entirely obvious choice for the stage – one of the main characters is a monstrous walking yew tree, after all. But that’s just the sort of challenge that appeals to Cookson.
“I like a book that’s got a hundred challenges,” she admits. “I think you can put anything on stage if you’ve got an imaginative team around you – and that’s what audiences go to the theatre to do, to engage their imaginations.”
Still, it took a while for them to work out the monster. Ness discussed the book with Cookson, and sat in on some rehearsals, and both agreed that it was important that the tree wasn’t just a supernatural thing – it had to function as a stand-in father figure for Conor. So one actor plays the spirit, and voice, of the monster. But how to make him also huge and terrifying and wild?
“I didn’t want a realistic tree being trundled in and out, and I didn’t want a puppet,” recalls Cookson. They’d been playing around in the rehearsal room with paper, cardboard, chairs, but it wasn’t clicking. Then someone hung up some ropes – and the monster walked.
It’s a thrilling bit of stagecraft, and has captivated audiences – not least ‘A Monster Calls’ own creator. “It’s amazing to me that so much can be created and given to an audience with just ropes and chairs. I found that magic,” Ness says.
The material has proved powerfully intense on stage; the show is a tear-jerker, but it’s never sentimental, rather unleashing the same sort of elemental emotions as the book, but held in a collective environment.
“I think it was cathartic for the audience, watching this story all together,” says Cookson. And she noticed something she’s never seen in her career before: audiences would stay in their seats after the show finished, sitting with it, talking about it.
“We realised that the audience didn’t want to leave the auditorium straight after, and so we kept the house open.” says Cookson. “And we’ll do that on tour as well, so people can just collect their thoughts or discuss it with the people they’ve come with, or with people they don’t know. That happened every night of the run – and it was a very special thing.”
A Monster Calls is at The Lowry from 25-29 February 2020.