Siobhan Dowd

A Monster Calls

05/06/20

Old Vic/YouTube

Looking back through my diary of another life, in another time, I note that I was due to see the touring production of this play at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, in early April 2020. It now seems unlikely that this was ever a possibility. Sitting in a crowded auditorium, enjoying a live performance? Is that really how we used to carry on?

Some productions have added resonance because of personal experience. Back in 2006 when I’d just embarked on my career as a children’s author, I was fortunate enough to meet Siobhan Dowd, when our respective debut novels were nominated for the same award. She was utterly charming and I had no inkling then that she was only a year away from her untimely death from breast cancer. A Monster Calls was an outline for a future novel that she didn’t live long enough to deliver to her publishers. It was subsequently completed by Patrick Ness and became a huge success in 2012.

I also loved the film version, directed by J A Bayona in 2017, which (another coincidence) featured one of Susan’s drama school pupils in the lead role (although she didn’t actually teach him). Even without these connections, this would still be a powerful and affecting story. I remember leaving the cinema, red-eyed from weeping.

This production, filmed onstage at the Old Vic in 2018, is now available for a limited run on YouTube. Though perhaps not as slickly filmed as many of the recent  ‘live’ theatre performances, there’s no doubting the emotional heft of the story. The central premise, clearly inspired by Siobhan’s own circumstances, is utterly heartbreaking.

Thirteen-year-old Conor McGregor (Matthew Tennyson) is in meltdown. His beloved Mother (Marianne Oldham) is gradually succumbing to cancer and he doesn’t know how to handle it. Estranged from his father (Felix Hayes), who now lives in America with his new family, Conor has nobody to confide in. He is being perpetually bullied at school and is resisting all attempts by his well-meaning grandmother (Selina Cadell) to make him accept that his life is about to undergo a massive change.

When his mother points out an ancient yew tree near to the family home, Conor begins to experience a series of bizarre visitations from The Monster (Stuart Goodwin) who lives within the tree. He relates a series of bizarre fairy stories and encourages Conor to face up to an awful truth…

There’s so much to relish here: the exquisite staging which ranges from stripped-back simplicity to explosions of almost pyschedellic colour; the ingenious use of ropes to evoke a whole series of images and settings; and there’s a sumptuous electronic soundtrack played live by Will and Benji Bower that adds a lush, dreamlike quality to the proceedings. The thirteen-strong cast all offer exemplary performances, though of course it’s Tennyson, in the lead role, who carries the heaviest load.

Is it as good as witnessing the play live? No. Am I glad it exists? Damn right!

Those who haven’t experienced A Monster Calls should catch this while it’s still available (you have until 12th June). And those who already love it could do a lot worse than indulging in another helping, just to relish those bitter-sweet flavours.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

A Monster Calls

01/01/17

A Monster Calls is an intensely emotional movie, telling the tale of twelve-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), and his struggle to deal with the realisation that his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer. It’s made all the more poignant by the knowledge that Siobhan Dowd, who conceived the novel the film is based on, died of the same disease before she could write her book. What we have here, then, is fellow author Patrick Ness’s interpretation of Dowd’s idea – and it’s good to see he’s done her proud.

Lewis MacDougall’s performance is extraordinary. (I should perhaps note here that he’s a student at The Drama Studio in Edinburgh, where I now work; sadly I can’t claim any credit for his achievements, as he’s not in my class, I’ve never met him, and he’d filmed this before I even joined the team.) He’s a gifted young actor, perfect for the screen, with a touching vulnerability here that’s reminiscent of David Bradley’s Billy Casper in the 1969 classic, Kes. His anger, fear and frustration are all writ large, and Philip and I find ourselves crying at regular intervals.

The story is essentially a simple one, making use of the idea of ‘the monstrous other’ and exploring the concept of duality. Conor is conflicted: he loves his mother, but he can’t live with the uncertainty of not knowing when she’s going to die. And so he stumbles between quiet acquiescence and towering rage, the latter symbolised by the unleashing of the yew-tree monster – like Jekyll’s Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster, Bertha Rochester, or even Blue’s Savage in David Almond’s graphic novel. Like its literary predecessors, this monster allows Conor to release his repressed emotions. It is both his undoing and his salvation.

There’s a stellar cast at work here, with Sigourney Weaver and Toby Kebbell occupying the roles of Gran and Dad respectively, neither of whom are what Conor needs to fill the void left by his mum, although they both try hard, in their own ways. Felicity Jones’s portrayal of the dying Elizabeth is utterly heartbreaking; she’s a real chameleon, and it’s hard to think of her as the same actor I saw in Rogue One last week. And the monster’s stories are beautifully realised, with some delightful sequences featuring dazzling, stylised animation.

There are some flaws: the bullies’ dialogue, for example, is wholly unconvincing and depressingly generic, and the first fifteen minutes or so seem aimed at a much younger audience. But these are minor niggles in the face of such an affecting, tragic piece of work. It’s a lovely film, and well worth going to see.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield