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Belgrade Theatre review: A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls, Belgrade, Coventry, to March 7.

As any bookworm will know, sentient trees have a long-established place in literature. From murderous demon Green Noah in The Children of Green Knowe to the capricious Whomping Willow of Harry Potter, the idea of walking talking perennials has long fascinated authors. But the yew tree spirit star of A Monster Calls, is more akin to folkloric figures like Herne The Hunter than celluloid 60s' triffids, or carnivorous maneater Audrey II from Little House of Horrors.

Based on the award-winning young adult novel by Patrick Ness, the play tells of teenager Conor (Matthew Tennyson), struggling to cope following his mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis, who encounters the ancient Green Man-style spirit of a yew tree during his recurrent nightmares.

The bare-chested monster, played to perfection by Stuart Goodwin, helps Conor fight his twin physical devils of school bullies and his mother’s deteriorating condition.

All cast members put in sterling performances, with Conor’s inner turmoil becoming increasingly shocking as the play gathers pace.

But it is the play’s physical design by Michael Vale which takes centre stage in this production. Set on a blank white canvas adorned with hanging PE-style ropes, the cast cleverly weave entwined cords into fronds and branches to represent the tree - first as persecutor, then teacher, and finally benevolent lifeforce.

While not acting, the cast, seated at the side of the stage, are incorporated into the set. This ingenious device means that the claustrophobia and chaos of Conor’s home life become almost palpable, as physical objects tumble, snatched out of reach as he prepares for school.

The story is powerful, bleak in parts, but ultimately uplifting, as the "monster" of Conor’s nightmares helps him to see that the contradictions of the human condition and bereavement are as normal and instinctive as the natural world itself.

Thought-provoking, philosophical, yet action-packed and pacy, this show is a must-see.

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