“People don’t want to hear the answer to a maths problem in a play”
Back in 2003, Mark Haddon’s Whitbread Prize-winning novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was somewhat inescapable. A murder mystery told from the perspective of Christopher, its quasi-Asperger’s Syndrome-suffering main protagonist whose investigations open up further mysteries that irrevocably change his neatly ordered life, it charmed many a reader with its quirky format and unique voice. It didn’t seem an automatic choice for a theatrical adaptation it has to be said but Marianne Elliott and the National Theatre have turned their hand to it regardless, employing a playwright who has had a ridiculously prolific year so far – Simon Stephens – to adapt it.
I caught the first preview, as I wanted to see it before I went on holiday, and as I missed out on tickets in the first round, I ended up in the ‘pit’, essentially a row of seats at ground level around the Cottesloe which has been reconfigured into the round by Bunny Christie in a design which is always visually arresting and endlessly surprising. Paule Constable’s excellent lighting design works beautifully with the swirling projection work, sequences of numbers tumbling all around, and Elliott has brought in Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly to lend their inimitable style to some of the movement. It is a production that is overflowing with ideas, perhaps a few too many at the moment and the preview period will help refine this a little, but the way in which they combine to powerfully affecting effect cleverly stretches our sensory experience to suggest how differently some see the world.
Stephens has played with the format of the book a little to create a piece of theatre out of it and what results is a show of two halves almost. The novel that Christopher writes, based on his detective work into trying to find out who killed his neighbour’s dog, remains though in the first half and is mainly narrated by his teacher Siobhan, a beautifully warm and tender performance from Niamh Cusack, with the various scenes being played out by the company, led by Luke Treadaway as Christopher.
Perhaps a little older than the specified 15 years, 3 months and 2 days than one might have expected, he nevertheless captures the awkwardness of a boy so intelligent in some ways, he’s about to take his Maths A-Level and yet so constricted in others as he can barely talk to strangers or cope with anyone touching him. His presence is initially a little muted by someone else narrating his story, but the second half flips this by focusing squarely on his personal odyssey (and also introducing a little meta business about putting on a play, which I have to admit flew over my head a tad – I think this was the sole major deviation from the book) and Treadaway rises to the challenge well as he pushes his own personal boundaries in pursuit of a new situation in which he can feel comfortable and offers us an insight into what his experiences are like.
Christopher’s condition, for want of a better word, is never named and so to criticise this for not being a realistic portrayal of such issues is to miss the point, especially given how deliberately theatrical it is. What does strike home though is the reality of caring for such a child and the stresses that it places on parents. As his struggling mother, Nicola Walker is beautifully, brutally open about her shortcomings and Paul Ritter’s taciturn father is excellently pitched, and written in both their faces, as they each go for the one touch that Christopher can endure and that has come to represent a loving hug, there are worlds of pain in the recognition of what they will never have.
Elements of humour are threaded throughout – I loved the discovery of items in Dad’s bedroom – and with Sophie Duval stealing quite a few laughs with some excellent comic business; it is a completely delicious pleasure to see Una Stubbs on the stage, here as the neighbourly Mrs Alexander; and there’s even two animals onstage, one significantly, adorably, cuter than the other. The Curious Incident… is at times a sprawling, unwieldly challenge, but as the hubbub of the sensory overload returns and returns, it becomes clear that these are the difficulties (or an approximation thereof) that Christopher faces as the story unfolds around him in the most unfamiliar way. A clever adaptation of the book, an ambitiously multi-layered production, a set of beautifully sensitive performances – there’s nothing curious at all about how much of a success this ought be.