Patrick Ness’ award-winning novel A Monster Calls has been adapted for the stage and is touring the UK after an incredibly successful run at the Old Vic Theatre. It’s a story of growing up and navigating the complexities of grief.
Conor is a 13 year-old boy who has a very close relationship with his mother after his father moved away. When his mum gets sick and doesn’t look like she’ll get any better, Conor is visited by a monster who tells him stories. In a beautifully imaginative way, we see this monster begin to get Conor to come to terms with how he is feeling and face his deepest fears. It is a poignant and piercing piece of theatre about love, loss and the highs and lows of life.
I spoke to Ammar Duffus, who plays Conor in the show. “It’s a really tough role but it’s one of the most interesting roles I’ve ever played,” he said. “Conor is a young guy dealing with a lot for a 13 year-old, so I really have to tap into that and see it all from a 13 year old’s perspective.”
Ammar is 25, so he had to approach getting into the mindset of a 13 year-old. “Sally Cookson our director wanted us to bring in pictures of ourself into rehearsals of when we were 13,” he said. “She wanted us to think back, what were the highs and low of that time? I was able to draw on what I was like as a 13 year-old and go about Conor that way. In the novel it is quite descriptive of how he is as a person, so I was able to marry the two together.”
Conor and his mum are incredibly close which is what makes it such a heart aching story. Sally Cookson is known for her stylised direction and she really amplifies the emotions in this piece. “When we started rehearsals Sally said to me ‘you have to dig really deep for this and I hope you’re prepared for it.’ She helped me a lot to bring the storytelling to life,” Ammar said.
“Everyone experiences grief, my early experience with grief was when I was around 14. I lost my grandad and then my great uncle a year after that. My experience of grief during that time hit me in a way I didn’t expect it to.
“You think everyone older than you is immortal and that they will live forever but actually it gives you a whole new perspective on life,” Ammar said.
“With this play, it portrays how we deal with grief as a nation, we bury it and don’t really face it head on. That is what Conor is doing, he is burying the fact that his mum is dying so he believes she will get better. It is a sad and complex story. In terms of grief, it’s heavy and people will learn from it.”
It’s a completely cathartic piece of theatre and anyone who has or is dealing with grief, will really connect to this story. The ‘monster’ in the book is a tree that faces Conor’s house, it is something he has always grown up with.
“It has been this thing, this significant figure in his life without him actually knowing it. The night the monster turns up, he turns up in the form of this tree that has been watching over him since he was a baby,” said Ammar.
The tree is a vehicle for Conor’s healing through his mothers illness and it plays a role that tells him stories in order to get Conor to understand his feelings.
Ultimately theatre is about entertainment, which this production is because of its clever and stylistic theatrical storytelling. But theatre is also supposed to make us think and feel, and this show is so important for that.
“It says what it needs to say about grief,” said Ammar. “You see the age range in the audience and you just see that there are kids that have been hit emotionally and reflecting on their own lives and experiences. Even if they are yet to experience it, coming to watch this will help them in terms of how they deal with it and move on with their lives.
“It’s a beautiful show with such a powerful message that people can learn from. It opens up a conversation about loved ones, what it means to be a teenager, to get bullied at school, to face grief,” said Ammar. “Everything you think a play should have, this one has. I think it’s important that you come and experience that.”
A Monster Calls is on at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre from the 3rd to the 7th of March before continuing on tour.