The Uncurious Incident of the Hit from the National

Scene from the play, with road map of London on the back wall

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.

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War ten-legged horse

Puppet of the horse, with head puppeteer clearly visible, and eight more legs visible under the horse

War Horse, like most London theatre, has spectacle as its main attraction – but it’s a much bolder spectacle that the usual West End offerings.

For once, I’m not going to give a critical run-through of War Horse – it’s already got overwhelming praise from, well, pretty much everybody who’s ever seen it, so I doubt my verdict will make any difference one way or the other. Instead, I’m going to ask a tougher question: does this justify the large public subsidy that the Royal National Theatre gets? Because although the Sunderland Empire calls itself “The West End of the North East”, the National isn’t a West End Theatre, and it’s not just because of its location – the difference is that all the West End Theatres are entirely commercially self-funding. The National justifies its public funding on the grounds that it can take risks. That’s quite an easy claim to make – it’s not hard to be more adventurous than the formulaic shows that make up much of the West End – but you also to show something for it. Yes, you can have the odd dud every now and then, the gambles that didn’t work out, but you need to prove yourself with the risks that paid off. Step forward Exhibit A, War Horse.

When you’re the flagship show of the flagship venture of subsidised theatre, there’s two things you need to prove yourself. Firstly, you need to be popular with the public – there’s no doubt War Horse has achieved this, if the near sell-out at the Sunderland Empire is anything to go by. But the second challenge is harder: you need to offer something extra, over and above what the West End gives us. That, I felt, was where One Man Two Guvnors was weak. What are paying our taxes for? What does the National give us that the self-funding West End doesn’t?

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