Usually once every season, there is something special that is the talk of London's theatre scene that seems to shake up its audiences and spread terrific word of mouth. Summer 2018 saw an example of this being A Monster Calls during its Olivier-Award winning run at the Old Vic, following an opening at the Bristol Old Vic. Now, this play is hitting the road in its first UK tour and frankly rightly so as this is an extraordinary piece about the human condition that ought to be seen by everyone.
Following her interpretations of La Strada and the National Theatre's Jane Eyre and Peter Pan, director Sally Cookson is yet again proving to be one of Britain's most exciting theatre makers bringing her devising process to this story concerning a boy facing his mother's terminal illness by Patrick Ness, following on from an idea by Siobhan Dowd before her death. Her theatrical "stamp" on these stories is certainly not going stale as it sheds a whole new perspective in adapting a piece for the stage in a way that only theatre can do, therefore the emotions in the Belgrade Theatre are intensely high, not leaving a dry eye in the house.
Cookson's "stamp" comes from approaching the story fresh without a script as it is collaborated by the actors in the rehearsal room. It is fascinating how a piece that relies mostly on the talented ensemble can feel so contemporary and move us in an extraordinary way. At the centre of this ensemble is Ammar Duffus as thirteen-year-old Connor O'Malley, who throughout the entire play does not leave the stage nor has much resting time. In his blazer, shirt and stripey tie, Duffus embodies the mannerisms of a thirteen-year-old who is carrying the weight and sadness on his shoulders. He also presents great rage and anxiety in his character, allowing the unspeakable emotions of this tragic story to be displayed quite clearly as he deserves all applause for his performance.
Connor's mother, played by Maria Omakinwa despite her deteriorating health is a beacon of hope as someone clinging onto the last moments surrounded by her family, while Kaye Brown plays his Grandma who speaks the more honest reality of the situation but with a great amount of unconditional care. We also see Connor's everyday struggles through his bullies Harry (Greg Bernstein), Sully (Jade Hackett) and Anton (Kel Matsena) and his battle for independance against the forigiving nature of his friend Lily, played by Cora Kirk. But one of the standout performances comes from Keith Gilmore as the monster who brings a skin-crawling, unnerving quality about him as he haunts Connor. Gilmore's performance doesn't require any monster like make-up, costume or effects but his sheer physicality as his moves and climbs around the stage is something of pure acrobatic standard making him both an intimidating monster but also an approachable guardian.
As with Cookson's previous productions, the technical aspects all gel together with the performances to create an undeniably unforgettable experience. Dick Straker's blood and fire infused projections fill the canvas which is Michael Vale's blank set behind with many ropes used by the ensemble to run around as branches of the recurring theme of the yew tree. While the sound design by Mike Beer works well in time with the actors' actions and the soundtrack composed by Benji Bower, who creates a contemporary but epic score performed live by Luke Potter and Seamas Carey.
All these ingredients are the key to this production becoming a mind-blowing piece of theatre, but ultimately it is a story with a long-lasting effect that really hits home. It is a story which explores what it means to be in pain and afraid, showing how we can and should cope with tragedy but explores humanity in all of its complicated forms. Having said that, it is truly an unforgettable night at the theatre worth seeing to provide us with hope and acceptance in life.
A Monster Calls runs at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry until Saturday 7th March.
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