Review: A Monster Calls at Kennedy Center

By Martin Morse Wooster: So why do we go to the theatre?  The acting, yes, and the sets, and the importance of getting out of the house.  But I think the fundamental reason we watch plays is for the story.

Stories matter more in the theatre than in film because far more of a play is in our imagination than in a film.  Stripped of CGI and rewrites by multiple people, what plays offer at their best is one person’s offering us something where, if it works, we tell ourselves, “Yes, that was a good evening in the theatre,” and if it doesn’t, we gnash our teeth and feel miserable until we get home.[1]

A Monster Calls is an example of a production where the special effects are interesting, and the story is treacle.  I’m glad I saw it, but I wasn’t moved by the story.

The production is based on a novel by Patrick Ness.  I don’t know anything about Mr. Ness’s work and would love to hear from a Filer who is familiar with it and the work he has done for Doctor Who.  But he’s won a lot of British YA awards, including two Carnegie Medals, and his novel was turned into a film in 2016 with Sigourney Weaver and Liam Neeson.

A Monster Calls is the story of Conor O’Malley, who is 13 and is suffering in what the British call a comprehensive and we would call middle school. Other kids pick on him!  He talks back to his teachers!  His mother has a disease that requires a lot of pain pills!  His grandmother dreams about the 1970’s, where she wore hot pants and danced to Donna Summer!

Oh, and his father walked out on his family and started a new family in America, where he learned to say “buddy” and “champ” and complain about not having enough vacation.

But O’Malley’s home has a really old yew tree, old enough that it harbors a spirit.  Every night at 12.07, Conor falls asleep and drifts off to the land where the spirit emerges as The Monster, who makes O’Malley listen to his stories, including one set in some sort of primeval monarchy and another in the Industrial Revolution.  Can Conor get lessons from these stories that will help him solve his problems?

A Monster Calls is produced by Global Creatures, an Australian enterprise that has turned a bunch of Australian films into musicals (including Moulin Rouge!) but is also responsible for King Kong, a megaspectacle I never saw because, like Kong himself, it died in New York.[2]

 In the movie of A Monster Calls, the monster was CGI.  But I gather from this interview with director Sally Cookson the production team’s primary task was how to create the monster on stage.  Their solution was something with a lot of ropes that could be tied to represent the yew after being knotted in some secret way.  The monster was also an actor (played in the performance I saw by understudy Paul Sockett) who must spend a lot of time bare-chested in the tree and in at least one scene must walk around on stilts.

It’s an interesting effect, but I was also impressed with the eight cast members who, when not playing Conor’s tormentors at school, formed an ensemble that maneuvered on stage with the precision of a drill team.

But the problem with A Monster Calls is with its script by Sally Cookson and Adam Peck.  We’ve seen teens like Conor in a thousand movies and TV shows, and there’s nothing about him that is interesting or imaginative.   It’s so generic that the mother’s name is “Mum” and the grandmother’s is “Grandma.”  The interesting set design and the throbbing techno music by the Bower Brothers cover up a boring and generic story.  I was told by someone who has read the novel that in the book Conor and his mother are both artists who have both seen The Monster’s visions and can explain what they saw through their art.  That’s a subplot that doesn’t exist here.

I didn’t like A Monster Calls and I don’t think it was worth the ticket price.  But as someone with an abiding interest in fantasy and sf theatre, I’m glad I saw it.  It is a play that engaged my brain but not my heart.

[1]   Anyone who has seen A Doll’s House, Part II and remembers the profoundly stupid reverse that takes place 80 minutes into this 90-minute one-acter knows what I am talking about.  The production I saw could not be saved by the work of Holly Twyford, Craig Wallace, and Nancy Robinette, who are three of the best actors in Washington.

[2] Here I’m talking about the real King Kong, not any random giant ape who fought Godzilla.

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