Photo courtesy of Dark Forest Theatre Company

Openness and hopelessness adorn the core of Nathan D Martin's Monster, a Dark Forest Theatre production bursting with raw heart beneath the seasonal thriller on its surface. A symphony both unfinished and triumphant at once, a lament for the contradictions and complications of a family life more bitter than sweet, the play shines most brightly through bold performances from Martin himself, Glenn McGivern and Marina Hampton, and heartfelt scripting. It is a traditional tale of the unexpected with emphasis on parents' importance to children and the importance of children to parents, and how the fulfilment of idealised perceptions, or lack of it, may taint the individual and familial psyche.

Gabriel (Martin) comes across a bit of a prodigal son without the slightest hint of redemption, one who went adventuring and cast aside the needs of his mother Claire (Hampton) and twin brother Michael (McGivern) while they grieved for their late husband and late wife respectively. He appears to believe that the knowledge and experience he returned with could benefit everyone. Yet it is of no benefit to Michael, whose apparent concern is for the welfare of his mother, and for Claire, who wants everyone in the family, even those who have departed, to be together. This eclectic concoction of overlapping needs and wants paves the way for a séance where the spirit of Claire’s dead husband is heard but not seen – at a family table where both truth and pain will out.

Therein lies the remarkable nature of Monster – it is a play where all sense of tact is brushed aside for the sake of its characters' strive for blunt authenticity. The only views that matter here are those within a house where societal expectations are closed off, and such restrictions bring with them anger and frustration which can only be concealed for so long. In Claire's case, motherhood, particularly single motherhood, is not seen as something to be welcomed – rather, it is seen as a cause of a loss of control, something that takes away her notions of what belongs to her. Or worse, what she believed would once belong to her - Martin's decision to have Claire immerse herself in literary fairytales provides the character with a stronger sense of tragedy that only can only come with the loss of innocence. A similar loss of innocence holds with Michael, who takes time, in a commandingly delivered monologue from McGivern, to paint a picture of a happy life with his wife Michelle - a narrative that holds with him and us until the séance awakens him to its cracks. For Michael and Claire, albeit over different spaces of time and in different circumstances, denial has preceded loss of hope without a resolution in sight - for Gabriel, denial of his family's needs once opened a brand new door.

They're quietly terrifying, these challenges to empathy and emptiness, and it is to Martin's credit that he does not leave it there. Within the time taken by Claire, Michael and Gabriel to properly face revelations, or otherwise, the motives and morality behind each character's decisions slowly and convincingly unveil themselves within the dialogue, disclosing that being effective does not always equate to being right, however one chooses to see it. It may also be, we find, that both parenthood and childhood demand much more responsibility from each other than either is prepared to handle, which, in turn, reveals the true monsters of the play's title - the demons inside all of us - and the paths we paint to escape them, only to find that said monsters may be inescapable. Thus the play is the equivalent of life as a never-ending, torturous trial punctuated only by brief respite from time to time – but in such a way that the overall effect is quite enlightening and concisely enthralling.

Simon Fallaha

Monster runs at Belfast's Sanctuary Theatre until Sunday October 29. For tickets, click here.