In ‘A Monster Calls’ at Kennedy Center, a jarring tale to heal a child’s grief

An adult story masquerading as a children’s play, the gorgeous and intense production follows a boy confronting his mother’s terminal illness.

There is something very human about the ability to hold two disparate, opposing truths. It is at times the most frustrating, senseless part of life, while also being essential to our survival, and ultimately, completely natural. This is what A Monster Calls — an adult story masquerading as a children’s play — seems to be trying to tell us.

A Monster Calls follows Conor, a 13-year-old confronting the harsh reality of his mother’s terminal illness. As her condition worsens, Conor is visited by a monster, the personification of a yew tree that has stood outside his house since long before he was born. The monster comes each night to tell Conor three tales, and eventually listen to what Conor will say, helping him process his grief and the anger and shame at the heart of it.

Anthony Aje as Conor and Bridgette Amofah as Mum in ’A Monster Calls.’ Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The changes taking place in Conor’s life are impressively reflected on an almost bare stage. Instead of relying on hefty set pieces, A Monster Calls opts for a much more abstract approach, using gorgeous and visceral projections (Dick Straker), exciting live sound and music (Benji Bower, Seamas Carey, Luke Potter), and here and there a few carefully chosen props and pieces (Michael Vale) to illustrate Conor’s world.

Under Sally Cookson’s direction, most of the show’s actors step easily in and out of various characters, embodying Conor’s friends, relatives, or school bullies, but also the various people in stories told by the Monster. The only actor remaining consistent is Anthony Aje (Conor), who infuses his role with both gravitas and playfulness, showing the emotional depth of Conor’s imminent loss at his young age.

Each of Aje’s fellow actors is so convincing that it’s difficult to name standouts, as each one delivers emotion, whether through dialogue, movement, or noise, so effectively and beautifully. Their power to evoke such a swath and depth of feeling warrants immense praise and credit. What is particularly remarkable about their work, though, is how Cookson has them work together with the technical elements of the show, using ropes that fall from the stage’s ceiling to create the ancient yew tree, or adding their vocals to the live music to better punctuate Conor’s emotion.

Keith Gilmore and Ensemble as Monster and Anthony Aje as Conor in ’A Monster Calls.’ Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The way that the ensemble employs these technical elements weaves a narrative in which stories encompass what Conor must try to understand about his life, and holds up a mirror to ask us to think about our own. During the Monster’s (Paul Sockett) first appearance, the ensemble gathers the ropes on set, entangling themselves while building a human pyramid with Sockett at the top. We watch the actors create this effect, weaving themselves in and helping Sockett hoist himself to the top with a harness until we see the full picture of the Monster. As we watch their process, we remember that we are seeing a performance, that each actor is just that — an actor.  The play is full of these kinds of moments that distance us from the play and make us aware that we are watching a fictional story much like Conor listening to the yew tree. This cleverly sets A Monster Calls up for success in its apparent purpose, as we are encouraged, if not forced, to confront our own emotions alongside Conor, and learn about shame, contradiction, and love in ways we should have as children.

This makes A Monster Calls powerful, and clearly aimed toward healing, but although there is catharsis to be found, the buildup is filled with extreme emotional pain, coupled with jarring, intense, and disorienting effects (see trailer below). The aspects of the show that reflect Conor’s struggle, his nightmares, his hellish time at school, are often vivid and disorienting. Projections with bright blood splatters and extremely loud mechanical grinding or banging noises combine with flickering lights to create a very visceral experience that engages the senses almost involuntarily. The result is both overstimulating and difficult to avoid, much like an intense emotion.

Keith Gilmore as Monster and Anthony Aje as Conor in ’A Monster Calls.’ Photo by Manuel Harlan.

While there could be lobby signs warning of the strobe-like lighting or jarring sound effects, the fact that there were no notes in the program or announcements about them made the emotional weight of the play more difficult to hold, and that is without accounting for any feelings and experiences that we as audience members already bring into the performance space. This especially makes the play feel almost unbearably heavy and difficult to shake at times. And perhaps it should, as grief and trauma are no light subjects by any means, nuanced and taxing whether individual or shared. But given the purpose of the play, the healing at the heart of Conor and the yew, I feel compelled to contemplate if a play can be reparative when it first causes suffering.

This is where we can take to heart the same lesson the Monster seems to be relaying to Connor. At the end of the day, reality is complicated. Sometimes humans have to hold conflicting emotions, and to do so is okay. A Monster Calls shows us the same thing. It may instigate pain to make its point, but it is also hoping to help anyone who sees it.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

A Monster Calls plays through June 12, 2022, at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($35–$139), purchase in-person at the Kennedy Center box office, call (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or go online.

The Kennedy Center says A Monster Calls is recommended for age 10 and up, but parental guidance is advised.

The program for A Monster Calls is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are required for all patrons regardless of vaccination status inside all theaters during performances at the Kennedy Center unless actively eating or drinking. The Kennedy Center no longer requires vaccine verification to attend indoor events and performances. The Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan is here.

A Monster Calls
The Old Vic production in association with Bristol Old Vic presented by Global Creatures, Jonathan Church Productions, and Chichester Festival Theatre \
Based on the novel by PATRICK NESS
Inspired by an idea by SIOBHAN DOWD


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