With a high-profile theatre and high-profile playwright taking on high-profile novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, expectations were bound to be good. And, yes, it is really really good.
Okay, the Theatre Royal doesn’t exactly have the most adventurous programme in Newcastle – much it of it is celebrity-cast revivals and jukebox musicals – but touring productions from the National Theatre have a good reputation. So when The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time came along, I thought I’d give it a go. Mark Haddon’s story is, of course, already a runaway success as a novel, and whilst some books are absolute buggers to make into plays (such as Birdsong), this heavily character-driven story was ideal for a stage version. And on top of this, the adaptation was written by legendary playwright Simon Stephens. Oh, and the director is Marianne Elliott, who you might have heard of as the director that oh so obscure piece known as War Horse.
So, legendary novelist, legendary book, legendary theatre, legendary director, legendary playwright: what could possibly go wrong? Nothing, except for sod’s law that seems to dictate that whenever the expectations are this good, they somehow manage bugger it up. Well, don’t worry. Simon Stephens and Marianne Elliott do not disappoint.
So, just in case you’ve just returned from a ten-year mission to Mars and you’ve never heard of the book, this is the story of Christopher, who has autism, is cared for by a devoted but weary father, and lacks a lot of life skill that could help him fit in the world. When a neighbour’s dog is found impaled with a pitchfork, Christopher resolved to find out who dunnit, with an over-enthusiastic reliable of Sherlock Holmes-style deduction. Unfortunately, Christopher doesn’t really get it’s not so simple as looking for clues – it’s a flimsy web of old resentments and white lies that most people want left alone – and he has no idea what he’s letting himself in for.
To Christopher’s credit, he’s smarter than most people appreciate. He may never have managed as simple as a trip to the shops, but he is extraordinarily gifted with maths – but in his special school where most pupils are lucky to get a few GCSEs, the idea a 15-year-old could take A-level maths isn’t taken seriously. And had other people done what Christopher did and told the truth all the time, things would certainly not be the mess they are now. Had his father told the truth about his mother, he would not have abruptly discovered she’s not dead, but living in London after walking out the the marriage. Has his mother told the truth to his father that she wasn’t coping, perhaps they could have worked things out and she would not have had the affair with the neighbour. But they didn’t, and now Christopher will learn a lot of life’s lessons the hard way.
Mark Haddon goes to great lengths to say that he’s not an authority of autism and the character of Christopher was more built on the obsessive behaviours of various people he knows. But he needn’t apologise for that – there is no set character traits for autism and there’s just as many character types for people with autism as there are without. It’s a sensitive and believable depiction, and Simon Stephens does a fine job transplanting this to the stage. In the stage version, the story remains narrated by Christopher, and the action remains entirely seen from Christopher’s perspective, but Stephens cleverly writes it so that you can easily read between the lines and see that there’s more going on than what Christopher notices.
But a good play is made even better by Marianne Elliot directing. A bog-standard West End director would probably have staged this with the usual moving scenery to represent the numerous, houses, streets, train and tube stations and parks that the story take in, but instead she goes for a plain mathematical grid – sometimes showing the numbers and equations going through Christopher’s head, but often using the minimal lines needed to show which scene is which at the time, and with an ensemble cast choreographed to military precision, it does a fare better job than an extravagant set could ever have achieved.
The only thing which I felt didn’t quite work out was making this into a play within a play. In the novel, the story is told as written by Christopher. In the play, Simon Stephens does it so that his special school is putting on a play based on this book. This did have some pleasing novelties, such as Christopher coming on after the play finished to explain the answer to the A-level maths question featured in the play to anyone who hung around (yes, duh, obviously I was going to wait for this). But I felt the way the play-within-a-play concept was introduced at the start of Act 2 was a bit clumsy, at a time when we’re all set for Christopher’s journey to his mother in London.
But that’s really the most minor of minor complaints. I am always sceptical about the hype of plays getting five-star reviews left right and centre, but this time the hype is thoroughly earned. It was a fairly easy task to produce a decent play out of this book, but the National succeeded at this challenge many time over, in a highly creative adaptation that still does the original justice. It’s a good start to the year for me, and another feather in the cap for the National Theatre. Keep up the good work.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time continues at Newcastle Theatre Royal until the 7th February.