The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: National Theatre

Happy New Year everyone! And welcome to my first review of 2015. One of my resolutions this year is to blog more often – which means seeing more shows (I know, it’s such a wrench), being more organised about using my free time and being more pro-active in seeking out productions. With that in mind, last week I managed to snap up a £10 standing ticket to see the last performance of the National Theatre’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at The Lowry. It was a spontaneous purchase the day before the performance – I’d never watched anything from the Upper Circle in the Lyric Theatre, or bought a standing ticket at any venue – but in the spirit of my resolution, I went for it.
And I was very glad I did. This excellent National Theatre production pushes normal theatrical boundaries to convey the story of Christopher Boone, a teenage boy with Asperger Syndrome, in a compelling and crucially non-conventional way. At the start, the body of Wellington – the murdered dog – is centre stage, speared with a garden fork. A chalk outline of his body is present throughout the action to remind us of Christopher’s purposefulness in his quest to find the killer.
The set is basically a giant black box with one side open to the audience. This provides a perfect canvas for phenomenal lighting and video designs, portraying moving scenery on Christopher’s train journey to London or bombarding us with slogans and signs to evoke a noisy, bustling station. At the other end of the scale is the simple creation of Christopher’s street, where illuminated numbered squares designate the individual houses that he visits. Plain white boxes multitask as suitcases, seats, tables, a toilet and even glow different colours to represent televisions.
Movement is also key in helping us to see things through Christopher’s eyes. With the help of the ensemble, Christopher walks on walls and tumbles through the air as he daydreams about becoming an astronaut. When he knocks on Mrs Alexander’s door and she offers him squash and biscuits, Christopher’s anxious wait for her return is communicated through her slow motion movement – in contrast to the other onstage characters, who are sat in their own houses moving with the jerky speed of time lapse footage.

Mark Haddon’s excellent novel translates well to stage. Christoper’s blunt, distinctive voice is maintained through his onstage narration, and any gaps are filled in by his teacher, Siobhan, as she reads from a book he has written about his adventures. She also acts as a vocalised conscience, prompting Christopher with advice when he faces difficult situations – the choice to costume her in white adds to the otherworldly, guardian angel aspect of her character. Interestingly, it is eventually revealed that Siobhan has adapted Christopher’s story into a play – the play that we are all watching. This is arguably a necessary device, given Christopher’s dislike of strangers and social interaction – he wouldn’t willingly stand on a stage and talk to a crowd – but it distances the narrative from its original perspective. Technically, we are all watching Siobhan’s version of Christopher’s story. When Christoper wants to explain how he solved the problem set in his Maths A Level, Siobhan stops him by saying that an audience will find it boring. Amusing, perhaps, but it’s a moment that confusingly breaks the fourth wall and exerts her control over the narrative. (Though Christopher’s ‘encore’ when he returns to the stage to answer the question – with the help of all the ingenious tech design and a couple of confetti cannons – is a lovely touch.)

Joshua Jenkins gives a strong central performance in the lead role, bringing Christopher to life without ever making him seem one-dimensional, pitiable or ridiculous. Stuart Laing and Gina Isaac are also excellent as Christopher’s flawed, frustrated parents. Seeing them outside of Christopher’s textual narration means that we can better understand their struggle to understand and communicate with their son. Amidst the arguments and raw emotions however, there are plenty of comic moments – Christopher imagines the frivolous inner thoughts of his fellow passengers on the London train, which they utter in quick succession (‘I left the oven on!’ ‘I really fancy a bag of Quavers’). One of my favourite exchanges was between the two Tube commuters who discover Christopher on the tracks searching for his escaped pet rat – as they become increasingly panicked, he becomes increasingly cross with the errant Toby, until the adults turn on each other (‘you’d better go down there and get him!’ ‘I’d better go down?!’) Crucially, these jokes are levelled at adults – not at Christopher or his behaviour.

Finally, I have to love any production that includes a live Golden Labrador puppy in its cast. When Christopher’s dad brings his son an apology present in a big white box and out pops the happiest Andrex puppy you’ve ever seen, the entire theatre squeals with delight. It’s especially touching to see Christopher so happy, so instantly trusting and affectionate towards another living thing. Though I did wonder what happens in case the puppy gets too excited… Let’s hope that hi tech stage is also wipe clean and waterproof!

I saw Curious Incident with Lizz C – check out her review here.

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