Theatre Company: National Theatre
Cast: Scott Reid, David Michaels, Lucianne McEvoy, Emma Beattie
Plot: A 15 year old (Reid) with Asperger Syndrome finds his neighbour’s dog murdered and vows to find the culprit.
The Curious Incident of the Dog At Night-Time is one of the nation’s most beloved books in the last decade. It acts as the diary of a boy with Asberger’s, writing a book for his teacher to make sense of his over-loading of emotions and sensory experiences. Christopher Boone, the lead character, is the brightest student of his special needs school, dedicated to facts (fiction, he theorises, is little more than lies), and a Maths genius. His special needs derives from a total lack of social skills. He detests being touched, cannot read body language in the slightest and has no understanding of metaphors (another form of lie, he tells the audience). The book, and play, opens with him, stumbling across his neighbour’s dog, Wellington, dead in the garden, a pitchfork sticking out of him. Spurred on by a compulsion to detect (a profession where facts are analysed to discover a hidden truth), and a sense of doing the right thing, Christopher begins to investigate who kills Wellington, despite everyone, including his father, sick with worry about his son’s ability to navigate his way through life, telling him that he should keep his nose out of other people’s business. The story is about more than a murder mystery concerning a dog though, while the title suggests otherwise. The answer is actually revealed at the end of Act One. The true purpose of the book is a character study of a boy who has such a focused view on the world that he has both a higher understanding of life than anyone else, but sees so little at the same time. It is also a tale about courage. Christopher lives his life by a code, but when he decides the right thing to do is break that code, his bravery sings to the audience. Maybe if we were all a bit more like Christopher, we would be all the better for it…
The novel is a sensitive piece of literature, unashamedly tackling the subject of special needs. It pokes fun at Christopher’s literal understanding of certain phrases or the public’s unsure treatment of boys with special needs, a line of humour tough to avoid but one that could be insensitive if handled wrong. The book, a narrative device made of paper and ink, is informal enough to avoid the pitfalls of putting the Aspergers humour on too much of a pedestal. With a play, the visual telling of such gags needs a lot craftier handling. A few early jokes in a police station are perhaps a touch too insensitive, perhaps due to their positioning in the piece, rather than poor writing. At this point, Christopher is still vaguely a stereotype rather than a true character. By the time, we have established Christopher as his own person rather than a generic boy struggling with Aspergers, the jokes are easier to swallow. Scott Reid helps this dramatically, providing an accurate depiction of a boy suffering Aspergers. His lack of eye contact during awkward interactions can quickly switch to Christopher persistently getting into a stranger’s face to ask a question that is important to him. The little things that Christopher does (wait for his parent to undress him, the low mumbles when in a situation he does not like), suggests that Scott has paid close attention to the Syndrome in order to do the character justice. The performance is a tough one even without the accuracy; the lines aren’t just extensive, but often delivered at a fast pace and jumping subject matter at a single whim. It is the kind of performance that is so madcap that most of it goes right over the audience’s heads. By the time, we are neck-deep into the story, we are so used to Reid’s depiction of Christopher, we forget how good the actor actually is. That being said, the play is dotted with moments that make the audience lean back with wonder at this talented, young actor, amazing us with his commitment to the project. Mark Haddon’s greatest achievement with his novel was putting us in the head-space of a boy with Asperger Syndrome and playwright Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott work wonders to translate this sensation to the stage just as accurately. Additional actors hover on the side-lines, shouting out random thoughts that enter his mind, creating the sense that his brain is filled with bursts of noise that he must organise and express accordingly. The stage shifts constantly, his world around him in a constant state of fluidity. It works well to also close the gap between the public’s line of thinking and the thinking of a child with Asperger’s. After the play is wrapped, perhaps we can leave with a bit more understanding of the Syndrome and what those with AS go through on a daily basis. That is the entire point of the book and the play extends that principal wonderfully.
Though, of course, while Scott Reid is worth praising, the main thing that will stay with you when the play is wrapped is the stage. The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time is a play that is made by the tech team. Walking into the theatre, the audience are met with a laser grid comprising of the floor and walls of the stage. These walls can be manipulated at the touch of a button. The opening, for example, is a rush of lights and sounds, plunging the audience into a flickering darkness, with blinding lights crashing through the theatre. It is an early method to make the audience realise what a sensory overload possibly feels like. The play never uses that trick as extensively again (thank the lord, it was bloody terrifying), but the stage is capable of so much more. The theatre is lined with hidden speakers, so a rush of noise in Christopher’s mind jolts the audience as much as it jolts him. The set is minimal, a few chairs and props, but the dancing LED lights do the hard work. The floor lights up in interesting ways, so a room materialises out of nothing. This is a play that needs rapid scene changes, to keep up with Christopher’s brain, so there isn’t a crew in the world that could get the next set prepared in time. As each new location is made up of lights on the floor, you will be left amazed at the creativity and resourcefulness of the technician team. The stage also packs hidden secrets. Draws contain key props and hidden doors where the actors can make a quick exeunt, fading from Christopher’s mind as quickly as they appeared, can be made out of the walls. There is also some outstanding physical theatre work from the actors as Christopher’s mind overloads and he pictures himself running along the walls. It is done with remarkable intensity, the cast and crew working as a well-oiled unit. I have always thought that the key thing that makes any theatre production is teamwork and The Curious Incident proves that wonderfully. The sensory overload scenes are the best, especially a scene where Christopher visits a tube station. The walls come alive with a LED light-show as Christopher struggles to get to grips with his loud and brash surroundings. The most amazing things about the more frantic pieces of tech-work is that the actors are right there, in the centre of the madness, already preparing the next scene. Caught inside the dazzling lights, they must know every inch of the space with expertise to be able to correctly line up the next scene and be able to launch directly into it, without so much as a moment’s breath, with professional quality. This play is a lesson to all theatre productions; the bar they should aim to reach.
But saying that The Curious Incident is little more than a light show doesn’t do justice to the smaller moments. Perhaps the best piece of the whole play was a long moment where a father and son simply stand and watch the rain. The father’s performance (David Michaels), is an emotional sucker-punch of a ride, his pain flying right over Christopher’s head but distressingly clear to the audience. Emotions run high throughout the whole play, going from heart-soaring happiness at Christopher’s attempts to overcome his social awkwardness, crippling sadness as heart-breaking revelations are dropped and touching humour when Stephens deems it prudent. That being said when it comes to winning the audience over with happiness, Stephens does use the cheapest trick in the book with delightful results at the end of the play (you will know it when you see it). It makes the slight problems dotted around the piece forgivable (a few gags from the extras felt unneeded and distracting, Act Two never quite musters up the heights of Act 1). The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is a resounding success, a remarkable feat of attention to detail and technical prowess. Also, hang on for a post-credits scene that puts most Marvel movies to shame.
Final Verdict: Stephens sticks to the book faithfully but adapts it for the stage to get the most out of his material. Every inch is mind-blowing. An essential watch.