a monster calls review

Review: A Monster Calls, Rose Theatre

Review: A Monster Calls, Rose Theatre

A Monster Calls is a theatrical gem of rare beauty.  


A Monster Calls, based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by Patrick Ness, and originally devised by Sally Cookson and the original company for Bristol Old Vic, is a theatrical gem of rare beauty.  

Thirteen-year-old Conor knows that his mum has cancer. He knows that she suffers. But does he actually know that she’s dying?  There is no one he can talk about it with – his cold, practical, and distant grandmother can’t bond with him, his classmates won’t look him in the eye, and his father simply doesn’t really care. And that is when he calls the Monster – or when the Monster calls him. 

Sally Cookson’s spatial imagination and her seemingly innate ability to create coherency and aimfulness in every movement are impressive, as always – but the conceptual nature of this show makes them even more so. Particularly the titular Monster – appearing as a neighbourhood yew tree constructed of ropes, ropes, more ropes and Keith Gilmore with a necklace of berries on his neck and a thunderous voice – is both fascinating and slightly frightening.

The show is a bit of a medley of a children’s fairytale, adolescent fantasies and physical creativity. And although the rough story outline screams a usual YA prose, there’s nothing cliché about the way the story unfolds, and most definitely not in the way it ends. Raw, not rough, it is, and reveals a painful truth about the ambivalence of grief, and about the ambivalence of human nature in general. 

Live music – and particularly a gut-wrenching song that accompanies the second of three tales that Monster tells Conor to illustrate the complex nature of human emotions, and a gorgeous vocalise sometime later – make for an impressively theatrical background, and in the best sense possible. A Monster Calls is quintessential theatre – with a beautiful balance of understatements and overstatements, stunning visual tricks that make perfect narrative sense, and stagecraft that at times overshadows the textual elements. It is Theatre – and Theatre at its best.  

Anthony Aje shows astonishing talent as Conor. His portrayal of adolescent grief, the emotional seesaw he’s experiencing, guilt and desperation is both very nuanced and realistic, whereas his relationship with his mum (an exceptionally moving performance by Bridgette Amofah) gets more strained and yet more poignant with the progression of her illness. Keith Gilmore has an exceptional stage presence that both commands respect and underlines the more tender aspects of his mission. 

The rest of the cast shifts between assigned roles – teachers, bullies, classmates, as well as princes, princesses, and parsons – and an extremely cohesive ensemble who remains on stage throughout the whole duration of the play.  

In the current theatrical climate where retaining a balance between content and form is rare, A Monster Calls is a gem. Not a perfectly polished one, maybe – but it is the inherent rawness that adds to its appeal. With a magnificent cast, glorious set design and true ingenuity, it is one to watch, admire, ponder over and cry at. Bring tissues – and a lot of them.  

Rose Theatre, until 9 April

Image credit: Manuel Harlan