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A Monster Calls in rehearsal - meet the cast and company

Posted on 4 February 2020

Following its successful opening in London in 2018, visionary director Sally Cookson brings her Olivier Award-winning production of A Monster Calls to the Belgrade Theatre this spring, as part of its first ever UK tour.

Adapted from the Carnegie and Greenaway Prize-winning novel by Patrick Ness, inspired by an idea from Siobhan Dowd, the shows tells the story of 13-year-old Conor O’Malley, who is visited by a monster while struggling to cope with his mother’s cancer.

Described as “offering a dazzling insight into love, life and healing”, the play comes to Coventry from 3-7 March, but before that, we had the chance to drop into rehearsals and speak to the cast and company.

“I’d been wanting to turn A Monster Calls into a piece of theatre for about two years before it finally happened,” says director Sally Cookson.

She had first read the book on recommendation from a friend and was so completely bowled over by it that she began buying extra copies to give away as gifts to friends and family.

Sally Cookson, Ewan Wardrop and Ammar Duffus in rehearsal for A Monster Calls

“It packs such an emotional punch,” she explains. “It’s a story that celebrates stories, but also gets under the skin of what we do as a society when it comes to talking about important stuff. And it’s also such a beautiful, fantastical, magical story as well. It’s got all the elements I love.”

To her dismay, when she set about trying to acquire the rights to turn it into a stage production, she discovered that they were unavailable. About a year and a half later, however, she was approached by the Old Vic’s Artistic Director Matthew Warchus with a choice of books to adapt for the stage – among which was A Monster Calls.

Like much of Sally’s work, the original production was warmly received, winning the 2019 Olivier Award for Best Entertainment and Family Show, but this year, a whole new cast will have the chance to sink their teeth into the story, and as Associate Director Sam Wood explains, this involves not only performing, but also helping to reshape the story and take it in a new direction.

“I’ve done quite a lot of stuff like this, and the way people like Sally Cookson and Emma Rice work is more than just directing or even devising. It’s storytelling with the company, which gives them a different kind of ownership over it,” he says.

“It’s a method that doesn’t really draw any distinction between the tools that you have to help tell the story. It’s not just the actors in the space speaking lines: it’s also about the aerial work, the lighting, the fact that the whole piece is underscored with music from top to bottom. It’s the best kind of theatre.”

Keith Gilmore and Sam Wood in rehearsal for A Monster Calls

“I didn’t see the original production,” says Ewan Wardrop, who plays Conor’s dad. “I saw footage but you don’t really get a sense of it from that. Everything we do – even getting up from a chair to standing – is not just that activity. You’ve got to have some reason behind it.

“It’s quite exhausting: our brains are just full of information. But I’m really enjoying it – I’ve not done anything this technically and physically specific for a long time.”

As with all of Sally Cookson’s shows, the set is a “playground”, sparse but suggestive, at once minimal and bursting possibilities. Action takes place in and around an imposing metal rig which, according to Sam, can “grow” up to 1.2 metres taller on stage than it is in the rehearsal room where we see it.

Hanging from the rig are thick ropes which, through the ensemble’s collective movement, coalesce into the monstrous tree of Conor’s nightmares – as well as whole variety of other shapes and structures, lending the whole show a kind of fluid, dreamlike quality as Conor’s internal and external worlds collide.

“The ensemble are on stage from the beginning of the show until the end, and they shift their focus in terms of who they represent,” says Sam. “For the most part, they are a reflection of how Conor is feeling inside, but occasionally they change. When the monster’s on stage, for example, they become part of this tree. At other times, their focus might be on one of their primary characters, like mum or dad.”

“You have to be really on it because if you’re not paying attention, you can miss a transition really easily,” says Jade Hackett, who plays Sully – one of the bullies that Conor gets into trouble with at school.

“We are all creating Conor’s world so when he feels tension, we all have to represent that. It’s so detailed and intricate, and it requires a lot of emotion and energy.”

“It’s really enjoyable working as an ensemble, trying to lose yourself in what everyone else is doing and pick up on the group physicality,” adds Ewan. “The script is quite concise because so much of the story is told through the sound and the visuals, without us speaking. It’s a brilliant way of telling a story.”

Kel Matsena, Maria Omakinwa, Greg Bernstein and Sam Wood in rehearsal for A Monster Calls

But beyond being wowed by the cast’s physical and mental gymnastics, what audiences should expect from this show is an honest and authentic emotional experience, following complex characters on a journey through love and grief, joy and pain, guilt, forgiveness and freedom.

“It’s a subject matter that people tend not to speak about, but actually, we really really need to,” says Sarah Quist, playing Conor’s Headteacher, Miss Godfrey. “And it’s not just young people – death affects us all, and the more we can talk openly about it and share these experiences, the easier it will be for all of us.

“When I first saw the film, it absolutely floored me, and when I read the script for the play, I was floored again,” she adds. “As someone who has lost two parents and nursed them through illness, I recognised it all – not just the grief but the funny little bits as well, and the times when it felt like it was too much.

“Seeing this and knowing that somebody else has felt the same way has made me feel so much better about when I was going through it, and it’s made me have more conversations with people about it. I’ve been talking more to my brothers and sisters – but even in the company, we’re all sharing our stories and it’s really great for unpacking those emotions.”

Ammar Duffus and Keith Gilmore in rehearsal for A Monster Calls

“For me, it’s a constant journey of learning and understanding, because I’ve never been through a serious illness myself,” says Maria Omakinwa, who plays Conor’s mum. “But of course, everyone knows someone who’s had cancer, and I can empathise so easily with being a mum and loving someone so much that you don’t want to leave them behind.

“People go through such a plethora of emotions – fear, panic, denial. Denial is such a big deal, especially when you have a doctor who don’t know telling you that you’re dying and yet you feel fine. It’s the weirdest thing, because it’s the chemo rather than the cancer that knocks people out.”

“This will be a highlight of my career,” says Sarah. “I’ve done many things, but this is exactly the type of thing that I wanted to do when I went to drama school – and even before that.”

“I saw the original production of this show last year, and it’s in the top two productions I’ve ever seen,” adds Dance Captain and Swing Raffaella Covino. “It’s definitely one of those shows that will always stay with you.”

A Monster Calls shows at the Belgrade Theatre from 3-7 March. Book now.