Writer: Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon
Director: Marianne Elliott
Reviewer: Stephen Brennan
The floor and walls of the stage at The Grand in Leeds are covered in gridlines straight from a maths textbook. The effect is to create a claustrophobic and oppressive cage filled with, among other things, a number of white crates, seemingly miscellaneous items like drinks bottles and a football, and in the centre, the body of a dog with a garden fork protruding from it. The conceit of this rather macabre pre-show image is to make the audience view the dog in the same way it views the rest of the items; this is the way Christopher Boone the central character of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time sees it, and it is through his eyes that this play is presented.
Christopher, a 15-year old boy with Asperger’s syndrome who lives in Swindon with his father, discovers his neighbour’s dog Wellington has been killed and decides to find out who did it. What follows is an adventure that takes Christopher out of the safety of his house into the wider neighbourhood where neighbours stand too close, all the way to the bustling and confusing metropolis of London and home again. Based on the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, this National Theatre production is a funny and touching story about a young boy discovering secrets long hidden.
The central performance by Scott Reid is phenomenal. Reid fills Christopher with innocence and pathos but never lets his portrayal become mawkish or cartoonish. The audience is routeing for him throughout; wanting to support him through moments of stress and anxiety. This is where Reid comes into his own: the physical portrayal of Christopher’s distress could, in the wrong hands have seemed silly and overblown, but if anything, the physicality is almost understated and the more powerful for it.
among the other principal characters, Lucianne McEvoy stands out as Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher who also acts as sometime narrator and Christopher’s conscience. McEvoy’s performance is wonderfully gentle and kind, a true embodiment of the one person Christopher can rely upon throughout the piece. David Michaels and Emma Beattie are also both excellent as Christopher’s parents. Michaels in particular has an incredibly brave moment of stillness in the first act that goes on way past the point of comfort.
The rest of the cast portray over 20 separate characters, but with that many roles, it is perhaps no surprise that some of the ensemble moments feel a little two-dimensional and under-developed. Whether this a directorial choice to try and show the minor characters as Christopher sees them is unclear, but the effect is for some of these smaller roles to feel like lazy caricatures. That said; there are ensemble moments that are quite sublime, in particular, some of the physical sequences, masterfully choreographed by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett.
The set and design serve to keep the audience viewing the world through Christopher’s eyes. The gridlines on the set become huge video displays, showing neat and ordered diagrams when Christopher is happy and noisy, chaotic mash-ups of unfamiliar images when he is uncomfortable. A recurring motif with a train set during the first act is an excellent metaphor for Christopher’s processing of information. Adrian Sutton’s musical score and Paule Constable’s lighting design are both fantastically emotive.
A slight gripe with the piece is within the script itself. The first act is framed as events being recounted from Christopher’s storybook and works well, particularly given the source material, however, the choice to frame the second act as a play adaptation of that book feels a little too clever for its own good. Rather than being meta, it serves to break the illusion of this being Christopher’s view of the world, although it does lead to an excellent pay-off for anyone patient enough to stay in their seats after the curtain call.
Marianne Elliott’s direction is impressive. The play is taut, fast-paced but knows when to slow itself down and take stock. Particularly with the extensive use of physical theatre and the framing devices, it would be easy for the piece to lose sight of the story at its heart, but Elliot wisely keeps everything focussed back on Christopher. At no point is the character off-stage, and even when conversations are happening without him, it is still his presence that underscores them.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is not perfect, but it is a very good piece of theatre and an excellent character study of someone with Asperger’s. The play is packed with moments of humour, moments of tension and one particularly cute moment near the end that had the audience saying “aww”. Ably supported by an excellent cast, Scott Reid steals the show as Christopher and it the audience is with him throughout. This is a production that really has to be seen.
Runs until 4 March 2017 | Image: Brinkhoff Mogenburg