Reviewed by Joy Wright
A Monster Calls is at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield this week and it is proving popular with the audience from the outset.
Based on the award winning book of the same name by Patrick Ness, the story is woven around the life of 13 year-old Conor, a boy who is dealing with the serious illness of his mother and the coping strategies, or lack of such, that young people might endure.
Late one night the monster calls, though not a monster as you might imagine. It resides as an ancient yew tree which stands near their home and which Conor and his Mum have seen throughout his whole life. The monster weaves stories of the lives of others into Conor’s life, challenging his beliefs, illustrating issues Conor is unable to process and ultimately helping him to come to terms with reality.
Patrick Ness ‘inherited’ the story via his editor, another writer Siobhan Dowd had presented the story but sadly died before she could write the novel. Ness took on the baton and wrote A Monster Calls which has since been produced as a popular film and presented on stage since 2018. This is the first tour.
Many people fell in love with the book which deals with themes we all struggle with, perhaps young people especially. More fell in love with the film, carefully created imagery portraying a lyrical story. The stage production is entirely different. The set is stark and harsh, much like the reality of bereavement. The lighting sometimes softens and sometimes brings the characters into stark and sometimes fearsome contrast with the nature of the story. The imagery is striking and this, accompanied by the music ensures that the performance is emotive in a way which the harshness of the set might not have achieved otherwise. If you are expecting a warm cuddle of a story with a bittersweet ending you will not find it here. It is stripped bare, almost clinically examining the experience of loss, the behaviours commonly experienced and then folding it into a story, avoiding being maudlin, or romanticising the concept. The imagery is strong, like the book, but far more of a contrast than the lull of Ness’ words created.
I especially liked Keith Gilmore in the role of the Monster. The aerial work is impressive and impactful, bringing a new element of interpretation to the story and the character, he is mobile and agile, not the tree we might imagine. His characterisation is commanding and befits the status we confer upon the yew and monster.
At times I watched the audience around me, the young people fully focused, the surreptitious sweep of a finger under the eyes of an emotional audience member, the cautious and barely contained sniffling of the two people behind me and in the wider audience.
The novel was aimed at the YA audience and this has become curriculum based on the UK and so there are lots of young people in the audience who are clearly struck by the impact and imagery of the performance.
This production has created a new concept within theatre, an opportunity to stay a while. The director, Sally Cookson, renowned for adapted literary works, noticed that audiences were not hurrying to leave and so the tour leaves the house open for a while, to allow the audience to process their thoughts and feelings and to talk or to contemplate their experience. It is clear why many would want to as so many are touched by loss.
However, the story is relevant to anyone and seats are still available, though in limited quantities.
Tickets cost from £15 (booking fees may apply).
A Monster Calls is at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield from 10-14 March 2020, for more information or to book tickets visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk or call the box office on 0114 249 6000.
Lyceum Theatre, Norfolk St, Sheffield, South Yorkshire, S1 1DA | 0114 249 6000