Review: National Theatre’s The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time by The National Theatre
Style reigns supreme in this technically brilliant adaptation of Mark Haddon’s breakthrough novel.
In National Theatre’s The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, three pieces of chalk are used in every single performance, with two spares on standby. Adrian Sutton’s opening music is counts out a 2-3-5-7 rhythm based off prime number sequences. 115 props are used in the show. Each actor playing Christopher has two pairs of blue trainers, and are the most frequently replaced costume item. One imagines that if 15-year old Christopher Boone was a real person, he might have taken note of these facts about the play and committed them to memory.
Co-presented by the Singapore Repertory Theatre and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, National Theatre’s The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time finally makes its way to our shores as part of its Asia-Pacific tour after over five years playing across the West End, Broadway and national tours. The hype is real and very much deserved – based off Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel of the same name, Marianne Elliot’s vision of the story is riveting and arresting from start to finish, capturing the essence of the original perfectly.
Curious Incident derives its title from a direct quote from a Sherlock Holmes short story. It’s a fact that immediately brings to mind how 15-year old protagonist Christopher Boone (Sam Newton) chooses to engage with the world around him, committing facts and stubborn preferences to his memory with cold, deduced logic as he grows up the child of a broken family, and saddled with developmental disorders. Playwright Simon Stephens’ script rides on the strength of Haddon’s plot, and told in epistolary form, many of the conversations between Christopher and the other characters highlight the disjoint between the way Christopher perceives his surroundings and awkwardly interacts with others as he embarks on his odyssey of self-discovery whilst solving the eponymous ‘curious incident’. A rare glimpse into the mind of a protagonist with mental difficulties, Christopher’s frequent usage of chalk as a means to express himself is an inspired choice that brings to mind ideas of alternative means of expression, using simple drawings rather than complicated words to find comfort and meaning in life, each drawing lighting up after he completes it to represent the sheer power of imagination and comprehension these actions grant him.
It is to the credit of the brilliant team of designers that make Curious Incident an undeniably beautiful show. Veteran production designer Bunny Christie, assisted by lighting designer Paul Constable and video designer Finn Ross, have crafted a set that is fantastic in every sense of the word, drawing out sheer magic from the regularities of the world around us. Seemingly plain and simple at first, the set gives way to pure magic when set against the backdrop of larger than life drawings and a million points of light across the grid-like walls, giving rise to the play’s themes of thinking twice about first impressions. Christopher himself defies gravity as he finds himself walking at a ninety degree angle or floating through the universe of his mind, while the terror of a Swindon boy suddenly faced with the prospect of facing cosmopolitan London’s dreaded underground is made terrifyingly real as he is accosted by an army of commuters and a sea of smoke in a nearly pitch black sequence that generates genuine fear and anxiety in audiences.
The reliance on technology makes Curious Incident a precarious play, where a single mistake could break the carefully crafted illusions. It’s quite incredible then that an international tour has managed to remain completely faithful to the original, adapting itself for each theatre it visits whilst maintaining the same level of quality each time. But beneath the veneer of theatrical wonder, a stellar cast armed with chemistry built up over months of performances and rehearsals makes the play work, allowing for tightly scripted actions to flow like clockwork, precisely timed to make each set piece pop at just the right moment.
At the same time, the cast is also capable at delivering on the emotional when it matters most. As intentionally awkward as Christopher’s interactions are, these provide the foil necessary for the ‘normal’ adult cast such as David Michaels and Emma Beattie as his parents each balancing parental love and exasperation at Christopher’s plight, while ‘narrator’ and teacher Siobhan (Julie Hale) is ample proxy to guide us on Christopher’s journey as she reads his journal aloud. Christopher himself works wonders when he is afforded the slightest hint of emotional resonance to let slip, its effect magnified by the contrast to his usually stoic self. Of note is the fact that throughout the first act, Christopher spends time subtly laying out tracks all around the stage. The sheer sorcery inherent in Curious Incident is at its peak when the train comes to life at the end of Act 1 (with multiple oohs and ahhs from the audience), making its way from a miniature Swindon to London, the set intricately designed with recognizable landmarks such as Big Ben and the London Eye.
Curious Incident is a play that will fill you with wonder, full of moments that will have you marvelling at the limits to which theatre magic can be pushed. But beyond that lies a powerful story about the impact of parental relations on a child, and to look beyond first impressions of people to uncover surprising skills and talents far beyond we might ever have expected of them. Curious Incident underscores the simple, universal threads that bind us all as human beings through Christopher’s grand adventure, and leaves us with hope that no matter the distance, love somehow finds a way. Even when the death of one dog has passed, there can still be hope to drive one into the future and begin life anew.
Performance attended 29th March 2018.
The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-Time plays at the Esplanade Theatre from 29th March to 8th April 2018. Tickets available from SISTIC