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

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

Curiosity killed the dog

Text: Renée Batchelor

A triumph of staging wizardry, physicality and poignant humour, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time brings the audience into the mind of an autistic teenager

We have never read the popular 2003 mystery novel by Mark Haddon upon which this highly-acclaimed play is based. But one will be glad to know that it in no way diminishes ones' experience and enjoyment of watching The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on stage. Expertly staged by the National Theatre, this joint presentation by the Singapore Repertory Theatre and the Esplanade boasts an impressive set and lighting effects designed by Bunny Christie and Paule Constable respectively. Without delving into gimmicky territory, the ingenious set — which looked like black graph paper on three giant walls — and the props, enhanced the experience of the play, and included among other things a working toy train, scale model of Big Ben and a live, heart-meltingly adorable Golden Retriever puppy.

Through the use of projected images, clever lighting and sound effects, the production brought aspects of the page to life, and offered a glimpse into the mind of lead character Christopher Boone, who is on the autism spectrum, but is not defined by his diagnosis. The set was remarkably versatile, using sound and bright, flashing lights to mimic his growing panic when navigating the chaos of the London Underground and displaying constellations to dazzling effect. It also serves as a giant blackboard of sorts for his emojis, scribbles and mathematic equations which are written on the floor but flashed on the backdrop in real time. Fun fact: Three pieces of chalk are used by lead actor Joshua Jenkins in each performance.

The cast of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

Sherlock Holmes aficionados will recognise the reference to the title — a line uttered by Holmes himself in the 1892 Arthur Conan Doyle short story The Adventure of Silver Blaze. It's a fitting reference as Boone is a huge fan of the detective extraordinaire, and the plot moves forward upon his decision to play amateur sleuth, when he discovers his neighbour's dog, Wellington, murdered in the dead of the night. A 15-year old boy who goes to a 'special school' where the other children are 'stupid' — according to him — Christopher is a math genius who fails to fully grasp the complexities of social norms and niceties. As played by Jenkins, this is a fairly physical role, that among other things requires him to walk on walls and balance precariously (thank God for core strength), but he brings to his performance a charming, child-like naivety despite his bouts of unintended violence and humorously wry observations on the confusing nature of metaphors, the dangers of talking to strangers and unspecific adult instructions like ''Be quiet."

Writer Mark Haddon has stated emphatically that the book is not just about a boy with autism, but "about many other things as well: Mathematics, families, space, death, loyalty, maps, Sherlock Holmes, truth, bravery, Swindon [the town it is set in] railways..." Indeed the play is about these things and many others, and although the ensemble cast, who take on multiple roles, is tight, and the physical transitions were flawless, this is a production that can succeed based on its premise, visual effects and staging alone. Adapted by playwright Simon Stephens, and directed by Marianne Elliott, it's easy to see why it has won seven Olivier awards and touched a chord with audiences, running somewhat continuously in three, different theatres in London for almost five years.

Lead actors Emma Beattie and Joshua Jenkins

Standouts in the cast include the alternatively tender and explosive turn by David Michaels as Christopher's complex and borderline abusive father Ed, and the sunny, almost light-filled performance by Emma Beattie as his (debatably) irresponsible mother Judy. More than anything, what the play tries to convey is a sense of empathy for outliers like Christopher who struggle for social acceptance and a sense of belonging in a confusing world. One memorable sequence occurs when he waits to board a train in London, and underscores the sometimes ridiculous nature of the daily rituals and norms we take for granted — an almost chereographed dance that may seem completely alien to those who don't understand the rules. The play at various junctures hints but doesn't overstate the need for greater tolerance and patience for the other. It also highlights the plight of parents of children like Christopher, who struggle to practice parenting with patience and equanimity, but all are too human in their failures. In a nice touch, the production will be holding a relaxed performance on 8 April catering to those on the autism spectrum and with learning difficulties, that allows the audience to leave the theatre for a break whenever they need to. 

On opening night when we reviewed this play, there was a fair share of students and teens in the audience, as the book is often recommended as a literary text or on the reading list in schools. In typical teen fashion there were some loud laughter at inappropriate junctures and audible gasps of excitement at the uttered obscenities (there is considerable swearing) that was then, (rather hilariously) hushed, in an amusing loop of self-censorship that played like a background soundtrack to the play. But the tittering teens' reactions were visceral and quite warranted, as the book and this resulting play were made precisely for this audience. Although anyone who has encountered or been a teenager in their lifetime will also enjoy the wryly comic and heartbreaking moments, small triumphs and utter confusion of growing up and finding out the harsh truths of life.

Till 8 April at the Esplanade Theatre. Book here 

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