Like the yew tree at its centre, A Monster Calls is a story that twists and turns, with multiple layers of fantasy and reality; its roots stretching deep into the pain of grief.
The original idea came from author, Siobhan Dowd who died from breast cancer in 2007 aged 47, before she was able to write it. Not wanting the idea to disappear her agent asked Patrick Ness if he would take it on. It was published as a young adult novel in 2011 to great critical acclaim and from there its branches have continued to grow. The book has sold more than a million copies; Ness also wrote the screenplay for the big-screen adaptation starring Liam Neeson and Sigourney Weaver; and in 2018 Sally Cookson adapted it for the stage, winning the Best Entertainment and Family category at the Olivier Awards.
The acclaimed production arrives at The Lowry towards the start of its first UK tour. Minimal, inventive staging means that the sets don’t need to be scaled down for the tour. Michael Vale’s design contains the stage in a square scaffold, from which falls thick rope, that the cast pull and twirl into a gigantic tree, coming to life in the form of an imposing, bare-chested man – Keith Gilmore as the monster – who wears a thick necklace of the tree’s aril berries and speaks in a gruff Scottish accent as gnarled as the tree’s bark.
The monster has been lying dormant at the bottom of Conor’s garden until unknowingly, as he lies awake worrying, he summons it to life at 12.07am. Conor is 13-years-old. He is being bullied at school and at home life doesn’t feel much safer. His mother is having treatment for terminal cancer; his grandmother is, in his eyes, interfering; and his dad is mostly absent, living in America with his new family.
Into this chaos the monster arrives, and similarly to the ghosts of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, he has three stories to tell Conor, after which he tells the young man he must tell the truth of his own story or be eaten alive. We are thrown into a world of both fantasy and reality, where the sparse nature of the set leaves space for our imaginations to run riot and the onstage band provide an almost filmic soundtrack that heightens already high emotions.
The effect is as impressive and absorbing as its accolades suggest. But, if you are unfamiliar with the story, don’t go along thinking this is family entertainment in the traditional sense. This is an unflinching look at terminal illness and death from a child’s perspective – a confused mix of hope, anger, pain and sadness, that anyone who has experienced a loved one’s death will relate to.
Ammar Duffus as Conor takes us with him every step. We too want the anti-cancer saving properties of the yew tree to save his mum, but we also feel it in the pit of our stomach that it won’t. The inevitable is a darkness that hangs heavily from the start but doesn’t make the end any less gut-wrenching.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
A Monster Calls is at The Lowry from 25-29 February 2020.