Review: A Monster Calls (touring) Nottingham Theatre Royal

A Monster Calls is a thought-provoking, dark and finely layered adaptation of the popular novel by Patrick Ness. Visually striking and ingeniously staged, it combines physical theatre with original music to create an almost immersive experience. The human truth revealed on stage leaves the audience powerfully affected and resonates long after the performance ends.

There is a uniquely collaborative history to this novel and stage adaptation. The seed of the idea was by Siobhan Dowd, a talented writer who died of cancer before she was able to write the book. Patrick Ness only agreed to complete the story when he could see it growing into something rather fantastical and unsentimental. Director Sally Cookson then cultivated the adaptation to the stage by working collaboratively with Writer in the room Adam Peck, Composer Benji Bower, Movement Director Dan Canham, and an ensemble cast.


The story examines the psychic landscape of 13 year old Conor trying to cope with the emotional impact of his terminally ill mother. Conor is struggling to cope at school, and shuns his friends, because real contact would make him have to face his demons. Instead, every night, he is faced with never-ending nightmares, and soon, a Monster comes walking to tell him ancient stories, and to get him to reveal the truth of his own story. Ammar Duffus as Conor barely leaves the stage and his painfully honest portrayal leaves the audience exhausted from the burden he carries.

Throughout, there is a brooding, haunting tone which is difficult to define. The original musical score by Benji Bower is played live and sways from crashing and powerful, wilfully uncontrolled, like the nightmares, to the daytime school routine, which is pulsing and rhythmic. The sounds of the city, moving traffic, the radio buzzes in the background and machinery hums. It is contemporary, clever and very cool. The soundscape works in complete unity with the powerful and expressive physicality of the piece, which extends to the performance of the small on-stage band, who maintain the tension of the world created.

At the heart of the story-telling is an archaic yew tree, uniquely characterised by Designer Michael Vale as a series of ropes, representing the threads of life connecting everything. By day innocuous, by night threatening in the shadows, branches weaving their way like thoughts through every element. The ropes coil around people, become both support and threat, like their own broiling emotions, ready to break free or smother. The Monster is like the ‘green man’ of ancient fables who inhabits the tree. Keith Gilmore gives an athletic and commanding performance as the Monster, using gymnastic circus skills to emphasise his other-worldliness.

A Monster Calls is a vivid and dynamic, painfully honest, portrayal of love and loss. This stage adaptation is striking and inventive, heightening all senses to create a resonant human tale. Where it began life as a novel for young adults, it has grown into something much more like a universal truth and a celebration of the intrinsic nature of being human.

A Monster Calls runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday 22nd Feb.

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