Reviews West End & Central Published 9 August 2012

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

National Theatre ⋄ 24th July - 27th October 2012

A numbers game.

Ben Monks

Simon Stephens has an unenviable task in adapting Mark Haddon’s novel: to re-conceive what’s not only one of the best-selling British books of the last decade but one written by a close friend, and a friend who’s also a playwright at that. His script is largely faithful to Haddon’s storyline: Christopher Boone is a 15-year-old boy from Swindon who describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties” (and is assumed to be on the Autistic spectrum, though this is never directly referenced and Haddon has repeatedly described his regret at the word Asperger’s appearing on the dust jacket).

When his marriage falls apart, Christopher’s father can’t bring himself to explain it all to his son – so instead tells him that his mother has died. A few days and a dead dog murder investigation later, Christopher discovers that’s a lie and heads to London to find his mother; which he does, and even has enough time to head back to Swindon to take his A Level maths exam.

Haddon’s novel is a first person narrative, a diary-come-journal-come-casebook kept by Christopher and recounting the events of these few weeks. Stephens re-frames it as the staging of a play based on Christopher’s book, possibly at his school, with the book partly staged and partly narrated by teachers-come-characters; an odd concept in itself (who found the book; and who having found it could possibly think it would be a good idea to display the events on stage?) and under-explored, albeit a neat trick for the purposes of an adaptation.

So one has to take a leap of faith, accept the framing and revel in the content; but once you’ve leapt, Marianne Elliott’s production lets rip. There’s an extraordinary, bristling energy to her staging, and an immaculate ensemble cast: Nicola Walker and Paul Ritter excel as Christopher’s parents; Niamh Cusack glides through the show like a cross between Christopher’s teacher and guardian angel, practical yet beguilingly other-worldly; Una Stubbs leads a supporting ensemble that melts effortlessly into a dozen different roles; and Luke Treadaway as Christopher captures almost faultlessly the conundrum of charm, cheekiness, confusion and stoic determination of Haddon’s leading boy.

Bunny Christie’s set is a near-perfect playground for this ensemble feast; it’s at once rigid, functional, full of grids and straight lines and building blocks and Lego and at the same time morphable into schoolrooms, tube trains, Swindon streets, helped on its way by the odd bit of AV trickery from Finn Ross, Paul Constable’s lighting and Ian Dickinson’s sound design. Rarely can such divergent areas of production – physical set, lighting, projection, sound, movement – have been integrated so harmoniously; only in the isolated moments of role-play and breaking character, of the staging of the staging of Christopher’s book, do things risk slackening.

Elliott teases out small moments that amplify the broader themes: this is a story about communication, about outsiders and about languages as spheres of reference for interpreting the world – whether that’s the baffling metaphors of Christopher’s teachers or the mathematical expressions that to him make more sense. And it’s a play of the unsaid, too; a piece that has broadened awareness of Autism and Asbergers as much as any other in the last decade without once using the words itself. Meaning is a quest; it has to be searched for, be that the process of solving a maths equation or the detective work of finding out who killed your neighbour’s dog; units of communication that can be so easily misinterpreted when out of context are here illuminated fully. And by way of the process, characters arrive at an end point; alongside the motif of communication runs a set of train tracks; Haddon’s plot is often driven by acts of travel: along a road to visit houses, in a train from London to Swindon, on top of some train tracks in London.

There’s something William James-like about it, an unrelenting positivity and belief in potential: through units of logic and expression, be they words or numbers or both, you can forge a path that leads from A to B; and if you put the right units together, B can be pretty much anywhere you like.

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Ben Monks is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Show Info


Directed by Marianne Elliott

Written by Mark Haddon, adapted by Simon Stephens

Cast includes Luke Treadaway, Niamh Cusack, Nicola Walker, Paul Ritter, Una Stubbs

Link http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

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