Adapted from Patrick Ness’ children’s book and following the 2016 film adaptation, this new theatre production has been subject to a lot of hype and expectation in the build up to opening night. Having never read or seen either, I went into the theatre with a lot of curiosity and found myself coming out with an unusually split opinion of the piece.
The show has a very slow start and it was not until just before the interval that I began feeling invested in the action. In fact, for the first fifteen minutes or so, I was quite disappointed. I think there were two key reasons for this: the initial visual effect of the set, and the way the ensemble’s physical theatre is directed. Having since looked at the smudgy charcoal illustrations from the book, I can see that the design of this production is far more modernised and less dark. The backdrop to the stage is made up of plain white boards, with a window in the top right to expose or enclose the live musicians when desired. Either side of the stage is lined with school chairs and from above hangs a mess of ropes, parted to either wing like a second set of curtains. Essentially, it is quite plain and not all that impressive at first sight (more on this later!) The white backdrop seems to have been chosen predominantly so that it could be used throughout for video projection, particularly during the recurrent nightmare scenes. And yet, the abstract videos reminded me of the animations of pre-downloaded music players which ‘ebb and flow’ to the music: they felt overly generic and, to be brutally honest, a waste of the potential offered by such a large blank canvas.
This genericism is also my crucial complaint with the more physical ensemble moments, which I believe the cast devised themselves. For example, during the nightmare scenes, the cast would move through a quick succession of freezeframe poses accompanied by flashing lights and loud synth music. Clearly the effect was meant to convey a sense of distressing emotional turmoil, but instead it made me feel like I was at an amateur drama performance; conveying a kind of contrived profundity which was unconvincing because of its cliché. However, I did enjoy the overall effect of having the whole cast on stage for the majority of the play. Cast members not in the scene frequently ‘help’ those who are, pouring milk on Conor’s cereal or gathering his school uniform for him in the opening scene, albeit in an impish manner. This creates a quaint surrealism which is in keeping with the nature of the play, as we see through the eyes of a young teenage boy whose imagination propels the narrative. It is charming and stylised in a far more successful manner than the more physical theatre of the nightmare scenes.
Now, back to the set: Michael Vale’s rope monster really comes into its own when we see it constructed by the cast. By running around with a couple of pieces of the hanging rope, the tangle quickly takes shape into a clearly defined trunk and branches. It is so simple but wholly ingenious, and neatly ties in with the play’s overarching themes of imagination and the mind’s power to transform. I also love the theatricality of this interpretation of the Yew Tree; the production has carved itself a distinct aesthetic which would not be possible in any other medium. It is not just the rope that brings the Yew Tree to life: it would be impossible to talk about this production without noting Stuart Goodwin’s fantastic performance as the monster. He is reminiscent of John Locke in his spiritual jungle mode (any Lost fans out there?): powerful and wise, but also stern and unrelenting. The sound effects on Goodwin’s voice gave just the right amount of reverberation and volume to create an otherworldly sense of authority and the same otherworldly vocals were heard with Nandi Bhebhe’s singing in the Yew Tree, both of which are a credit to Mike Beer’s sound design.
In contrast to the magical, we have the extremely believable and human performance of Matthew Tennyson. An adult playing a 13 year old is quite a challenge and I quickly forgot that there was an age gap at all. This is, ultimately, a play about the pressures of being a young carer and of being a child surrounded by adults who will only ever offer half-truths about the situation. Tennyson does a particularly good job of conveying the resulting frustration and confusion, giving the audience an insight into Conor’s world. Selina Cadell also stood out as Conor’s grandma, with a complex portrayal of what it is like to face losing a grown-up child, and the tensions of remaining composed as the most senior figure in the room whilst grappling with one’s own grief. There is a scene between Tennyson and Cadell at the end of the first half, which for me was the most powerful in the play and a real turning point in the production. I don’t want to give too much away, but seeing Conor’s anger manifest into real world destruction and the reaction of his grandma hit a strong emotional note. It is also worth acknowledging the ensemble’s part in this scene; they really helped to embody the spirit of anarchy and I am still stunned by the smoothness of their (onstage) costume change.
Characterisation is a core strength of this production and the play itself is designed to be a tear-jerker – so definitely take tissues with you to the theatre. I ended the night sobbing although, given the subject matter and my propensity to tears, I do not think that can be wholly considered a testament to the production. The stylisation is both a high point and a low in its unevenness, bouncing between dramatically successful and overly stagey. It is really the source material though, that causes the production so many problems. The book is written for children and, thus, the narrative is repetitive and formulaic, with an abundance of moralising. Yet at the Old Vic with a predominantly adult audience, that inherently childish structure and those awkwardly trite lines of dialogue feel misplaced and cliché.
Ultimately, the production gives a heartbreaking insight into a young carer’s situation and I imagine it would be highly nostalgic for someone fond of the book. The theatre recommends that it is primarily for “young adult and adult audiences”, yet I think families with children 10+ would enjoy this show the most.
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