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A Monster Calls: In Conversation with Paul Sockett

Conor is 13 years old. His dad has left home, his mother is seriously ill, and his grandmother has come to stay for a while. Nobody around him will speak to him about what's going on; not his family, or the other children at school. That is until one night, when a monster pays him a visit. As the giant, ancient yew tree ferociously comes alive, the monster presents a series of fables that will help Conor face the truth of his situation and share his anxieties.

Patrick Ness's novel explores the human fear of and inability to easily talk about and confront loss, as well as the immense power that storytelling holds in order to allow us to make sense of the world. It grew from an idea inspired by the late author, Siobhan Dowd, who outlined the idea for the story to her agent before passing away. As the story travelled to Ness, he ran with the mischievous and exciting twists and turns heralded in Dowd's work. Having sold over a million copies since its release in 2011, the collaborative story has struck a chord with readers young and old around the world, unifying them over shared emotions that we often struggle to evoke.

A Monster Calls is bought to the stage by visionary director, Sally Cookson (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (Leeds Playhouse); Jane Eyre and Peter Pan (Bristol Old Vic/National Theatre)), who fell in love with the story after devouring it in just a weekend. For years, she carried a copy of the book in her handbag before being approached to bring it to life. Using a company of actors, and a collection of ropes and chairs, the intertwining stories of fantasy and reality unfolds with stagecraft that has captivated audiences.

A Monster Calls is a story that emotionally packs a punch; it tackles fragile subjects with frantic frustration and is both beautiful and wild at the same time.

Cheeky Little Matinee spoke to actor, Paul Sockett who is currently portraying Mr Marl in the UK tour of A Monster Calls, to learn more about the production and what it means to him.

L-R Keith Gilmore (Monster), Paul Sockett (Mr Marl) and Kaye Brown (Grandma) in rehearsals for the A Monster Calls UK Tour. Photo credit Manuel Harlan.

Please can you tell me a little about yourself and your path to becoming an actor?

I'm from Lancashire and originally wanted a career in sports but, as regularly happens, it didn't manifest itself. After falling into Drama at college, I was asked to be in the end-of-year production, had a good time and chose to pursue a potential career in that direction instead.

I was at Preston College, so when I chose performance, I joined onto the full-time Dance course that Preston College provide to gain a knowledge of different dance types, as well as condition my body for different physical requirements from that of a footballer. Ironically, there is physical vocabulary, and some skills, that neatly transfer. I've been a professional actor since 2004 and have been privileged to be part of projects like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time along the way.

I have varying interests so in my spare time I enjoy things like upcycling furniture, learning new skills like qualifying as a personal trainer, for example, learning about how to be more caring to our planet and engaging on the topics of mental health and personal growth, both generally, and specifically for those in acting and creative industries.

What first attracted you to A Monster Calls as a production that you wanted to be part of?

I fell in love with the book when it first came out, though it tore me apart when I read it. I was drawn to the wonderful illustrations by Jim Kay without knowing anything of the story and when I read it just happened to coincide with my dad's illness at the time, so it was all very resonant. Sally Cookson's work is always very physical and interwoven. It demands multiple skills and the ability to knit as a team, working together to tell the story, which is great to be a part of. This story is also, in my opinion, a really important part of a societal conversation that needs to happen around honesty, trust, loss and emotional vulnerability. I'm proud and excited to be part of making these accessible to so many, however old they may be, or whatever walk of life they may come from.

Patrick Ness has commented on the reception that the show is having on audiences. How do you feel the emotional impact of the show and embrace or react to it?

There is a responsibility that we all have on stage to trust the audience with some hard words, images and themes, regardless of their age. Though this is accessible to younger audiences as well as adults, the energy is very different to anything I've felt before. As we give our energy out, there is an engaged stillness and presence that comes back from the auditorium as they follow us through the story, and that helps to ground us in the present moment. It is up to us to not apologise for potentially bringing up some tough feelings for the audiences. As an ensemble, we must focus on keeping that reciprocal energy, in the space and flowing between us and those watching. Allowing that build, and that tension, and that release to be contained. The minute we let our focus go, and let that energy go, we start to patronise our audiences by not trusting them to go with us. Just like the text says, "If you speak the truth, you will be able to face what comes." Simple, but by no means easy.

The show discusses many themes that are typically hard to approach with children at the heart; illness, death, grief, and is absolutely credit to its storytelling. What has been the biggest challenge you’ve found performing in the show?

I believe the only reason these topics are packaged as being 'hard to approach with children' is because we, as adults now, were conditioned to believe that from the responsible adults in our lives when WE were children, and so the cycle is perpetuated. And because we as adults have not had space to learn otherwise in the majority, I would add that it's difficult to approach illness, death and grief with adults as society stands. The biggest challenge has been finding the way to do this important story justice. There is no pressure in this show. Pressure is something we fight when applied. Everyone involved with this production wants to tell this story to as many people as possible and it's beautiful to be in a company that are all working together to honour and share the important messages and themes in the show.

Cast of A Monster Calls UK Tour. Photo credit Manuel Harlan.

The show seems to be quite physically and emotionally demanding, with contemporary movement allowing it to take shape. Can you tell me more about a particular scene perhaps that is your favourite to perform, and why?

It's relatively simple compared to some of the other pieces, but time passing shows how the world can seem to happen around is at various places while we may feel disconnected and slow. It shows how Conor's mind is busy with images and his nightmare whilst life happens around him. Every actor is aware and connected to each other and it shows how even the use if pedestrian movement can be incredibly powerful to a piece.

The monster, who is described as a tree, is depicted by ropes, and comes very vividly to life. Can you share a story from the rehearsals, perhaps a moment where everything started to come to life as the production came together?

The first time we meet the Monster is a highly synchronised moment in the show. Ropes, aerial, group connection, choreography and then the characterisation on top; so when all those components started to gel, it really felt like that first Monster moment was going to have maximum impact and that we were all part of the ancient Yew.

Finally, what have you learnt about yourself through being part of the show?

I've been able to reinforce some important points as vulnerability, emotional intelligence and acknowledging that all feelings are valid are things I have been exploring since my Dad passed away. There is true strength in sharing our truth and not protecting others from potentially feeling difficult emotions by saying what we think they want to hear. 'Love' is being willing to ask for help and to be in tough moments with people we love without trying to fix them.

A Monster Calls is currently touring the UK, and includes a stop off at Nottingham Theatre Royal 18 - 22 Feb 2020. Buy tickets, here.


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