Sometimes it is good to go to the theatre in a state of innocence. I have neither read the prize-winning novel by Patrick Ness on which this show is based, nor seen the film adaptation. But I have caught the recent work of the play’s director, Sally Cookson, including her versions of Jane Eyre and La Strada, and this exhilarating production has the physical inventiveness and ensemble cohesion that are her trademarks.
The story is a mix of moral fable and antique myth. Its hero is a lonely 13-year-old, Conor, who is bullied at school and coping with his mother dying of cancer. Resisting adult authority, including a disciplinarian gran and a dad briefly visiting from the US, Conor turns to a dream figure: a gigantic monster who sprouts from a yew tree in the local churchyard and offers to tell Conor three tales if the boy will, in return, tell him the truth. The strength of the story, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, is that it blends adolescent reality with fairytale fantasy.
Since the monster’s message concerns emotional honesty, I confess I couldn’t share the snuffles and sobs around me at the story’s end. To borrow a phrase of Keats, I felt it clearly had “a palpable design upon us”. What really impressed me was the wit and elegance of Cookson’s staging and Michael Vale’s design. The visual concept is based on strands of rope that are twisted and tangled to form the gnarled branches of a yew tree, out of which Stuart Goodwin’s monster appears. With his bare torso, necklet of berries and commanding presence, Goodwin evokes folkloristic memories of Herne the Hunter and the Green Man. Rope is also used to suggest everything from a wicked queen’s crown to a car’s steering wheel.
It is Cookson’s gift for creating a world out of simple props and actors’ bodies that gives the show its drive. Aside from rope, chairs are the other key ingredient used to convey both schoolroom regimentation and the wild disorder Conor creates in his detested gran’s home. Matthew Tennyson’s physical presence as Conor also gives the story its focus. He captures the vulnerability and solitude of a victimised 13-year-old: his eyes often seem to be fixed on the middle distance, as if reluctant to engage with other people. Yet Tennyson also displays a teenage stroppiness to the moralising monster, and the boy’s complex mixture of guilt and love towards his ailing mother. Praise is also due to Selina Cadell as Conor’s bossy gran, Marianne Oldham as his stoical mum and John Leader as a tormenting bully.
Watching the show, I couldn’t help wondering if Ness’s title was a deliberate echo of An Inspector Calls. As in JB Priestley’s play, a mysterious outsider arrives to press home a moral point. But there is nothing formulaic about the monster’s stories, which invest Grimm-style fables with a Brechtian irony. Whereas Cookson’s production of Jane Eyre felt like a reductive account of a great novel, here there is an ideal balance between means and ends. The story, the acting and the music of Benji and Will Bower, at one point echoing Khachaturian, are all used to remind us that, whether children or adults, we all have to face the fact of mortality.