Review: A Monster Calls is an astonishing tear-jerker of a show on Coventry stage

Ammar Dufus in A Monster Calls. Picture: Manuel HarlanAmmar Dufus in A Monster Calls. Picture: Manuel Harlan
Ammar Dufus in A Monster Calls. Picture: Manuel Harlan | other
Nick Le Mesurier reviews A Monster Calls at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Conor (Ammar Dufus) is a boy under pressure.

He cares for his mum (Maria Omakinwa) who is terminally ill. He is bullied at school. His Grandma (Kaye Brown) wants to take him over and micro-manage his life. His father (Ewan Wardrop) has left the home for a new life in America. And if that isn’t enough, he is visited every night by a Monster (Keith Gilmore) who seems to inhabit the giant yew tree at the bottom of his garden. The Monster has walked the earth for millennia, yet it has something for Conor. It also wants something from him. Both are matters of truth.

The truth the Monster shares and what it wants in return is told in stories, one told each night in a nightmare vision that Conor tries to keep secret. Yet the most important truth is the one that he hides from himself. Patrick Ness’s multi-award-winning story, on which this play is faithfully based, is ultimately about growing up and learning to face truths. That’s a tough call for anyone, let alone a 13-year-old boy, and most of the adults in the play are blind to its importance. But Conor is in a desperate situation in which he needs to acknowledge the truth of his own feelings if he is ever to be free.

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The cast of A Monster Calls. Picture: Manuel HarlanThe cast of A Monster Calls. Picture: Manuel Harlan
The cast of A Monster Calls. Picture: Manuel Harlan | other

I won’t say more about the plot because one needs to walk Conor’s journey with him to get the full force of it. And walk with him we do in this marvellous and much praised production. It is beautifully acted and delivered by a company led by stellar director Sally Cookson.

Part of the magic is a clever use of ropes, which gives the play a circus quality as the actors turn them from the branches of a tree to a clock to a car in the twinkling of an eye. The Monster himself is both terrifying and beguiling, a father figure that Conor lacks, but one whose apparent harshness is driven by love for the boy.

A Monster Calls is part physical theatre, part fantasy, part parable, part coming of age story, part tragedy. It would be too much if it were not so beautifully done. The ending, when it comes, lacks nothing for its inevitability, which like Connor we both feel and accept, having grown with him to the point where we can. It’s an astonishing show that caused many in the audience to be glad of the experience and to shed a tear in sympathy, me among them.

* A Monster Calls runs until March 7. Visit belgrade.co.uk or call 024 7655 3055 to book.

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