Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Review by John Lombard

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time opens with the sight of a purple dog impaled by pitchfork.

This is just one of the many striking images in this Olivier and Tony Award winning National Theatre production, directed by Marianne Elliott.  But as amazing as the visual design of the play is, what captivates is the authentic drama of the story from the novel by Mark Haddon, adapted for theatre by Simon Stephens.

The murdered dog is discovered by Christopher (Joshua Jenkins), a teenage boy with Asperger Syndrome.  Christopher is blamed for the murder, and to clear his reputation he becomes a detective and grills his neighbours for clues to the identity of the true culprit.

The story riffs wittily on the tropes of the detective story: Christopher is repeatedly warned to lay off the case, builds psychological profiles of potential suspects, and the departed dog is represented on stage with a chalk outline.

But like a suburban Oedipus, Christopher's quest for the truth will inadvertently uncover secrets that will unravel his world, and test his ability to survive.

Direct narration in Christopher's words and brilliant design work by Bunny Christie lets us access Christopher’s interior life.   Christopher cannot lie or understand faces, but has a mathematical wizardry represented by the grid design of the set.

The enclosing grid design of the set creates a feeling that Christopher is trapped within a box of rigid logic.  But the points of light on this graph also plot a path to freedom, such as when Christopher’s dream of being an astronaut is represented by the constellation of a dog.

But the play is not performed entirely from Christopher’s point of view: characters have facial expressions and nuances of voice that Christopher cannot understand, and the play creates suspense by letting the audience know more than the hero.

There is a constant contrast between what is happening and how Christopher experiences it, such as one sequence where an everyday task is shown to be for Christopher an odyssey into a literal underground.

The performance is athletic and physical, with typically beautiful and expressive movement work by Frantic Assembly.

Most characters are treated with empathy and nuance, with the only jarring note the contemptuous representation of some of the adults in Christopher’s life.  In a play organised around a theme of empathy and understanding, it felt like a cheat to have so many cartoon fools and villains.

Like all good murder mysteries, this mystery is more than it first seems, with eye-catching design a doorway into a thrilling and moving story.  One of the best moments is when a painstakingly assembled model city bursts into brilliant life, but even this moment is usurped by our interest in the challenge Christopher now faces.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in beautiful, engrossing, and shows the potential of theatre to create empathy.  An unforgettable production, and mandatory viewing