Melissa Blease reviews The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 25 March
It’s difficult reviewing a play that’s been widely reviewed on countless occasions. What more can I tell you about Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel that you don’t already know? It’s even more difficult when the play in question has, despite being a relatively modern phenomenon, embedded itself so deeply in the heart of our popular cultural consciousness that its plot, its concept and its uplifting message have almost become shorthand for multiple reference points – only last week I heard a news presenter refer to the Brexit debates as “becoming more and more similar to the issues raised in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as the days roll along”. I sort of thought I knew what he meant – but actually, having never seen the play, I didn’t. And now I wonder if the news man did, either.
So, we’ve established that we all already know quite a lot about the play in question. The plot revolves around 15-year-old Christopher Boone, a mathematic genius who’s emotionally ill-equipped to deal with everyday life. Amongst a long list of quirks, foibles and idiosyncrasies, Christoper has a massive distrust of strangers, is incapable of telling a lie, loathes being touched, doesn’t like the colour yellow, is incredibly sensitive to loud noises, finds metaphors acutely annoying and would love to be an astronaut, even though he’s never ventured beyond the end of his road unaccompanied. Oh, and although he never mentions this (and neither does anybody else in the play, or the book) Christopher has Asperger’s Syndrome.
When Christopher’s neighbour’s dog is killed, he takes it upon himself to discover who the murderer is, only to end up unwittingly uncovering the truth behind a greater mystery – one that’s had a profound impact on the dysfunctional Boone family.
This acclaimed National Theatre production takes us on a journey into uniquely imaginative realms that, while remaining largely loyal to theatrical tradition (set-up; conflict; resolution) doesn’t shy away from experimental devices, and occasionally relies on play-within-a-play trickery to allow a multi-levelled narrative and an eclectic list of characters to flow and merge seamlessly.
Staging the action in a versatile black box allows plenty of scope for projections, lighting and sound to move us between locations and create atmosphere, whether we’re boarding the London Underground, being interviewed by a policeman, rifling through Christopher’s dad’s personal effects, searching for an escaped pet rat or inside Christopher’s head as he solves a mathematical equation.
Both David Michaels and Emma Beattie (as Christopher’s father Ed and mother Judy) offer sensitive, intimate portrayals of conflicted adults who veer between selfish, impatient, volatile kidults and hapless yet deeply loving (though extremely confused) parents. Lucianne McEvoy as Christopher’s intelligently compassionate teacher Siobhan anchors all manner of volatile situations with grace, aplomb and generosity.
But it’s Scott Reid who, with an extraordinarily powerful performance as Christopher, fittingly both steals and carries the limelight. Whether fixating on a model train set in an attempt to block out the realities of parental war raging around him, blankly failing to register social mores, screaming with fear and insecurity, offering an academic discourse on the illogical semantics of metaphor or explaining why he loves to watch the rain fall, his clumsy awkwardness is subtly charismatic and his blunders utterly charming, while the exultant physicality he brings to the role makes for sheer ethereal theatrical alchemy.
But ultimately, strong though every facet of this extraordinary production is, this play is not about the plot, the script or even the actors who bring it all to life – it’s about people: who we are, what we really think, what motivates us, how we perceive the world we live in, and what love actually means.
And while those themes may elicit all manner of opinions and attitudes, one thing is patently clear: no discussion that’s even vaguely connected to Brexit is likely to ever be as lucid, humane and inspirational as this modern work of art is.