Re:View – ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’
A few years back,Â Mark Haddon’s children’s book became a sensation. Its story of an autistic boy, Christopher, investigating the death of Wellington, a dog found speared with a garden fork, becomes a heroic journey of discovery that leads to the exposure of adult lies. Christopher only tells the truth and takes everything he sees at face value. So prime numbers, black holes and Pythagorean theory are easier for him to understand than the facts about his parents’ failed marriage.
Retelling this in a new medium, the National Theatre production, now relocated to the beautiful Apollo Theatre, transforms the stage into a massive black graph-paper grid, on which LEDs track Christopher’s voyage of awareness. This is very much the style du jour, from ‘Enron’ to ‘Matilda’. Instead of scene changes and realistic sets, we can use our imagination in an open-plan playset of a stage. The cast carry Christopher and his pet rat through the universe, up walls and even become living items of furniture as we learn to see the world through his rewired brain. Sometimes the stage pours numbers, sometimes diagrams. Chalk drawings come to life, stairs appear from nowhere, boxes unfold to reveal props. It’s a brilliant piece of imagining, and illuminates the dialogue.
With the arguments between teachers and parents swirling around him, Christopher manically connects a vast train set that finally becomes London lit up at night. Christopher’s journey to London alone is a cacophonous nightmare of signs, adverts, people, trains and information overload – he’s nearly killed beneath a tube. He’s clearly a very difficult child to look after, especially as his parents are divorced, but his teacher has given him a goal – to pass his maths ‘A’-level. Unfortunately the exam comes at a stress-filled make-or-break moment for the boy and his divided parents.
In its transformation into a play, a new element has been added – a teacher who reads the diary Christopher keeps, building his words into the play we’re now watching. It’s easy to see why the device is needed, but adds a sentimental layer that slows the pace. A small quibble, as this is physical theatre at its most organic. Still, it’s a long and exhaustingly immersive evening.
Even the theatre seats have been altered to reflect Christopher’s binary world – every other one is white and has prime numbers on it. Don’t leave until after the curtain calls, when Christopher returns to prove Pythagorean theory in exactly four minutes, concluding with fireworks. Many in the stalls had already left, and missed his virtuoso demonstration. There are several different Christophers currently performing – it’s a very demanding production.