Stage Door Review

London, GBR: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Friday, November 15, 2013

✭✭✭✭✭

by Simon Stephens, directed by Marianne Elliott

National Theatre, Apollo Theatre

March 1-December 19, 2013;

Gielgud Theatre

July 8, 2014-June 3, 2017;

Piccadilly Theatre

December 11, 2018-booking to April 27, 2019

Christopher: “I thought that I had to be like Sherlock Holmes and had to detach my mind at will to a remarkable degree so that I did not notice how much it was hurting inside my head.”

The National Theatre’s stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is as warm and sensitive as it is spectacular. Generally, spectacle tends to negate warmth and sensitivity, but director Marianne Elliott has achieved just such a miraculous balance before in War Horse (2007), which she co-directed with Tom Morris. The play opened on August 2, 2012, at the Cottesloe and was such a success that it transferred to the West End. It is now on its second cast. No one who loves the book, and indeed no one who loves the theatre, will want to miss Elliott’s latest creation.

The story concerns Christopher Boone (Mike Noble*), who comes upon the body of Wellington, a neighbour’s dog, stabbed to death with a pitchfork. Since Christopher strikes a policeman who has come to investigate the incident, Christopher is taken down to the police station as a suspect. His father Ed (Trevor Fox) rescues him from the police by explaining Christopher’s condition and telling them that if Christopher says he did not do it, he did not, because Christopher is incapable of telling a lie.

Although the word is never mentioned in the play, Christopher is autistic. Since Christopher only understands language literally, he finds people confusing because they constantly lie by using metaphors. He can’t stand being touched and when he is overwhelmed by information, he can’t cope and tries to withdraw from his surroundings. At the same time, although only 15, he is a wizard in math and is preparing to take his A-levels in the subject.

Because the police show little interest in discovering who killed Wellington, Christopher, despite his father’s objections, decides to investigate the matter himself. He goes door-to-door interviewing his neighbours, most of whom like Mrs. Shears (Cathy Walker), the dog’s owner, are uninterested in helping such an odd kid. Only one, the elderly, partially deaf Mrs. Alexander (Gay Soper) is willing to help, but the information she has turns Christopher’s world upside down. Christopher’s father had told him that his mother Judy (Amanda Drew) had died of a heart attack. Now Christopher learns that she may really be alive and living in London. Christopher’s quest to find Wellington’s killer that occupies Act 1 suddenly turns in Act 2 into a much larger quest to find his mother.

As befits Christopher’s preoccupation with mathematics and physics, designer Bunny Christie’s set represents a large grey cube, each side and the floor covered in a blow-up of graph paper. The seemingly sterile environment, however, is an illusion. During the actions we find that the walls and floor conceal innumerable cupboards and hiding places. Tables can rise from the floor or a large part of it can sink to represent a pit for subway tracks. Slats can protrude from the back wall to represent an escalator. The set is also peppered with hidden lights that shine to show objects Christopher sees or paths Christopher takes. In this way the set represents Christopher himself. He may seem preoccupied with math and fact and incapable of experiencing or understanding emotion, while in fact there are numerous hidden aspects to his personality of which even he is unaware.

The most technically exciting parts of the show are those where Elliott and her creative team attempt to show us what the world looks like from Christopher’s point of view. When Christopher dreams of his love of outer space, video design Finn Ross covers the walls with stars and distant planets. When Christopher falls into a tantrum when confronted with lies people have told him or contradictions to his plans, he clings to his love of prime numbers for a sense of security. Here Ross shows projections of these numbers flying out of Christopher’s crouched body and flying all over the stage.

The most impressive sequence is Christopher’s train journey to London to find his mother. He has never been out of Swindon or travelled by himself and so, for him, the journey is a massive and frightening undertaking. All of the minutiae of travel that we take for granted are new to him and incomprehensible – finding the station, buying a ticket, finding a carriage knowing when to get off. All this is beautifully conveyed as new and unusual by Elliott and her team. Christopher’s arrival at Paddington Station is the most frightening part of all. Since Christopher’s condition prevents him from filtering information, Finn Ross’s projections of useful information mixed with advertisements reinforced by Ian Dickinson’s sound design and Paule Constable’s lighting shows us what utter chaos the ordinary world is for Christopher.

With the help of the physical movement choreographed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett we see he feels he is literally walking on the walls of the station. Yet, he manages to negotiate this world by remembering coping mechanisms taught him by his teacher Siobhan (Rakie Ayola), like literally taking one step, left, right, left, at a time to get through this maze of information. This kind of sequence, emblematic of the whole play, not only brilliantly shows us Christopher’s world but also satirizes the bizarreness of the world that we consider “normal”.

While the cast I saw was the show’s second in its commercial run, it was impossible to see how its work could be improved. Mike Noble gives a fantastic performance as Christopher. Because he doesn’t understand many of the ways people talk and how society works, much of what he does and says appears quite comic, yet Noble’s performance and Elliott’s direction make sure that we never laugh at Christopher but at the conventions that to him don’t make sense. It is a real triumph to make us feel sympathy with someone who cannot understand emotion, but that is exactly what Noble achieves.

Rakie Ayola is both Christopher’s teacher and the show’s narrator. The conceit is that Christopher has written a book of his experiences and she he reading sections of it to us as part of the play that has been made from the book. Luckily, Elliott does not push this metatheatrical angle too hard because we don’t need to be any more alienated from the alien world in which Christopher lives. Rakie gives Siobhan the gentle authority and quiet patience that makes her Christopher’s touchstone and refuge in times of distress.

As Christopher’s parents Amanda Drew and Trevor Fox are both flawed human beings who have betrayed Christopher in different ways. Much of the emotional heft of the story is in their teaching us that their faults can be forgiven, however, unforgivable they may at first appear.

The rest of the cast – Daniel Casey, Jo Dockery, Patrick Driver, Gay Soper, Paul Stocker, Matt Tait, Cathy Walker – play a huge range of characters and keep them all admirably distinct. Casey stands out as Roger Shears, who seems a rather dodgy character from when we first meet him, while Soper stands out as Mrs. Alexander, an elderly woman who can’t get around Christopher’s various prohibitions to be his friend yet acts as a friend would in spite of Christopher’s seeming indifference.

As in War Horse, Elliott does not allow all the technical magic as her command to over whelm the human story she is telling. Rather the spectacle never exists for its own sake but always serves to support the narrative or to convey Christopher’s point of view. Even so, it is still the human-scale movement devised by Graham and Hoggett that impresses the most and the simple emphasis on fine acting that is the most moving.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a rare example of a great play based on a great novel. The production is so theatrical it will appeal to both those who have read the novel and those who have not. One thing is certain – this is one play of the many in London’s West End not to miss.

Christopher Hoile

*From November 28, 2018, the cast will include Joshua Jenkins in the lead role of Christopher Boone. He will be joined by Julie Hale (Siobhan), Stuart Laing (Ed), Emma Beattie (Judy), Sean McKenzie (Reverend Peters), Eliza Collings (Mrs Shears), Lucas Hare (Mr Shears), Gemma Knight Jones (Punk Girl), Lynette Clark (Mrs Alexander), Craig Stein (Mr Thompson). Sam Newton will play Christopher at some performances. The creative team is the same.  

Suitable for 13+

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: (from top) Mike Noble as Christopher Boone; Amanda Drew and Mike Noble. © 2013 Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

For tickets, visit www.curiousonstage.com.