A Monster Calls

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Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It’s not very often I’ll go into review a show cold: I’ll usually have some idea of plot, cast, etc before going into the the theatre. In the case of A Monster Calls I knew it was based on a book, and there was something in the back of mind telling me that there had been a film adaptation too. In terms of plot I knew very little, had I known I could have prepared for the tsunami of emotions that hit me.

This is the story of Conor (Ammar Duffus), a lonely 13-year-old boy with the weight of the world on his shoulders: harassment from the school’s bully, a father living on the other side of the world, his mother (Maria Omakinwa) is seriously ill. Understandably, it’s his mum’s illness that is of most concern to Conor, confused by what he is seeing and his mother’s reassurance that “everything with be fine” he has no outlet for emotions.

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Conor’s life soon becomes even more complicated when he receives a visit from a monstrous creature. Located in his garden is a giant yew tree, which comes to life at the same time each evening. The yew tree has been on the earth for hundreds of years and informs the boy that he will tell him three tales and in exchange Conor will tell him one in return.

Each night the tree returns with a brutal fable, involving, kings, queens and apothecaries, all with a dark heart to them, there is no happy ever after with these stories. But, what do they mean and how do they help Conor?

Sally Cookson has created a powerful, visceral and devastating adaptation of Patrick Ness’ international bestseller.  This is a fairy-tale that deals with grief, anger and the importance of expressing our emotions, this is an unflinching, unsentimental view of the world through the eyes of teenager, complete with all his frustrations and heartache.

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The production looks and sounds amazing. The haunting score by Benji Bower, is both beautiful and haunting, played masterfully by musicians Seamas Carey and Luke Potter. There use of electronica and voice distortion gives the production a fantasy, other worldly quality.  The staging is simple but affective, just a white floor, with a white back drop where, looking not to dissimilar to a padded cell, adding an element of claustrophobia, despite the vast openness of the stage. Visuals are projected on the wall throughout, and the ensemble cast when not playing their part will double up as visible stagehands handing out props as and when required.

However it’s the recreation of the woodland behemoth that is most impressive: using a series of  giant ropes which cascade onto the stage throughout, the ensemble cast gather them together to form the tree, this coupled with Keith Gilmore’s physical and menacing delivery as the monster, make for an impressive visual spectacle creating a truly intimidating protagonist.

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The production isn’t without it’s flaws, despite a solid showing from the cast, with strong physical and emotional performances throughout they are occasionally let down by some stilted dialogue which is a little distracting, however this is a minor quibble for what is an innovative, powerful piece of theatre.

Having quite recently lost my father, nothing could have prepared me for the emotional sucker punch the production provided during its final moments and judging by the amount of people clearing the sand from their eyes (least that’s what I think it was) at the end of the performance nor was anyone else. Powerful, intelligent and emotional, when this monster calls you had best answer as you won’t be disappointed.

A Monster Calls is on at at the Lowry until Saturday 29th February, tickets are available here.

La Strada

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Ahead of a London run at The Other Palace this summer La Strada embarks on a small UK tour with the Lowry being one of the lucky theatres to host this magical production.

Based on the 1954 Oscar-winning film by Federico Fellini, La Strada is the story of young Gelsomina (Audrey Brisson) who is sold by her struggling mother to travelling strongman Zampano (Stuart Goodwin), she is to be his assistant, a post previously held by her sister Rosa who Zampano mysteriously tells us ‘Didn’t survive the winter’. Naïve Gelsomina is instructed to beat a drum and announce Zampano’s arrival whilst under constant and real the threat of being beaten until she gets it right, out of loyalty to her family and with a mission to understand what really did happen to her older sister Rosa, Gelsomina obeys, follows instruction and accompanies the bullish Zampano on his travels across Italy. Zampano frequently abandons Gelsomina overnight as he enjoys the hospitality of local women and more than a few jugs of wine, he is brutish and cruel yet she remains loyal and strives to please him. Things change when they join a travelling circus and Gelsomina meets Il Matto, The Fool (Bart Soroczynski) who has a long history of pressing Zampano’s buttons and pushing him just that bit too far. The Fool opens Gelsomina’s eyes to the fact that life is for living and that everything living and breathing has a purpose, no matter how insignificant it may seem, through their meeting we see Gelsomina find her inner strength and the courage to take back her life.

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Audrey Brisson is superb as Gelsomina, she perfectly embodies the shy and awkward young girl, she is captivating and engages the audience from her first moments on stage, her whole body is used to create this beautiful and frightened character, you believe her entirely and are desperate for her to succeed and to fly. Her development throughout the piece is a joy to watch, as her confidence grows and she starts to believe she matters and truly has a purpose in life. In contrast Stuart Goodwin’s Zampano is vulgar and unfeeling, he delivers the role of the yobbish strongman so convincingly you find yourself desperate for him to get his comeuppance. Bart Soroczynski is a delight in the role of The Fool, with superb circus skills he is utterly captivating, he is weary of being a clown yet if not a clown what else would he be? He finds humour in the irony of his life and pokes fun at not just himself but all around him, his sees humour where there is none, making you feel that for The Fool life has become a tragic cycle of painting a smile on his face yet insdide his heart aches.

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La Strada was devised by the entire company within the rehearsal rooms, with a guide on where they wanted the story to go, collectively the entire company worked together to decide how this piece got there, creating with it a real unity amongst the company. It is a beautifully dynamic and wholly enchanting piece of theatre, further evidence of just how thrilling and forward-thinking Director Sally Cookson’s work is. The piece is enthralling and utterly captivating, with an ensemble cast who move together so effortlessly it is at times as if they are as one. The talent of the actor-musicians on-stage outstanding. Cookson’s superb direction allows for her cast to really deliver the most perfect of productions. Katie Sykes’ stripped back set allows scenes to flow effortlessly into one another, while the cast use every inch of the stage in this physical and multi-layered production. La Strada is a delight, Cookson’s storytelling so rich that I literally didn’t want this production to end; it is a work of real beauty, full of heart, a true theatre gem.

On at the Lowry until Saturday https://www.thelowry.com/events/la-strada

 

Jane Eyre

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First staged at the Bristol Old Vic, where the story was performed over two evenings, director Sally Cookson brings her acclaimed production on tour, presenting Bronte’s much loved classic as a thrilling and inventive performance beautifully staged in the Lowry’s Lyric theatre.

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While many will be familiar with the story of Jane Eyre for some it’s one of those novels that you may have always intended to read but never quite got there, it is the biography of orphan girl Jane Eyre (Nadia Clifford) and bares striking similarity to Brontë’s own life, raised in the North of England Jane is taken in by her Uncle after the heartbreaking death of her parents, much to the disgust of his cruel wife, Jane’s Aunt, Mrs Reed (Lynda Rooke). When Jane’s Uncle becomes unwell, he asks Mrs Reed to promise to raise Jane as her own, sadly although she provides a house for Jane to dwell in she certainly doesn’t offer the love and warmth of the promised home subjecting Jane to a life of misery and abuse from not just her Aunt but her Cousins as well. At 10 years old she shipped off to Lowood, a school for orphaned girls, where she continues to experience a cruel and unforgiving life, despite this Jane manages to form a strong bond with her school friend Helen Burns (Hannah Bristow), tragedy however is never far away and Jane suffers more gut-wrenching loss.

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Eventually Jane becomes a teacher at Lowood but yearns for change and adventure, she advertises herself as a Governess and is soon summoned to Thornfield Hall to educate Edward Rochester’s (Tim Delap) French ward Adele. As the developing friendship between Jane and Rochester begins to build strange happenings within the house start to occur risking both the safety and the future of both Jane and Rochester.

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The staging of this production is immediately striking upon entering the theatre; set designer Michael Vale uses wooden pallets to create various levels and platforms accompanied by multiple ladders and steps which are used to maximum effect by the cast. Aideen Malone’s lighting design is bold and dynamic, creating and changing the atmosphere dramatically throughout the production.

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The small cast take on a multitude of roles throughout the play and are magnificent, their characterisation outstanding and utterly captivating. They strive to ensure we see Brontë’s work is just as relevant today as it was then; they deliver each and every character with commitment and style. The piece feels fresh and inspiring as the spirited and strong Jane fights for her own freedom and fulfilment. Jane is told early on in the play after being punished by her Aunt in the red room, “Perhaps you should learn to keep your passions under control” something we soon realise is a thing Jane in order to be true to herself could never do. Nadia Clifford is superb in the role of Jane, yearning for liberty and adventure her spirit is strong and her need for fulfilment, physically, spiritually and mentally never wavers. Clifford is mesmerising, charismatic and captivating you immediately warm to her and are desperate for her to succeed. Sally Cookson uses several cast members to verbalise Jane’s inner thoughts, this works beautifully, illustrating just how strong and determined Jane truly is as she battles with herself to do what she believes is right as heart-breaking as it may be.

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Melanie Marshall as Bertha Mason, the ‘lunatic in the attic,’ is superb, frequently appearing through musical interludes her vocals are hauntingly brilliant and pack a real punch. The effect feels almost like a musical narrative, with hugely inventive and highly original song choices that flow beautifully from one scene to the next offering more depth to an already magnificent production. The entire cast give their all; they make for a tight ensemble and move fluidly from one role to the next, accompanied by on stage musicians who add a further creative layer to this inventive piece.

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Jane Eyre is a truly exceptional piece of theatre, groundbreaking and utterly captivating. Brontë’s much loved masterpiece is delivered with freshness and intelligence, you can’t help but think how pleased she would be to see her Jane portrayed with such heart and soul. The National Theatre in partnership with Bristol Old Vic once again succeed in bringing a true masterpiece to life, full of passion, intensity and originality, an absolute must see.

Photo credits Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

On at the Lowry until Saturday 15th April https://www.thelowry.com/events/jane-eyre