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

Paul Ritter (Ed Boone) and Luke Treadway (Christopher Boone). Photo Manuel Harlan

The National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is directed by Marianne Elliott, adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s best selling, much loved book. Clearly much of the praise that will follow (and there will be lots of it) belongs to them. But also I wanted to get their names out of the way, because, as with the best productions, plays and stories, I don’t want to talk about writers and directors. I want to talk about the story itself and the world it has created.

It is often said that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a story through the eyes of Christopher, a teenager who has Asperger’s syndrome. The play is not so much the world through his eyes but his world: a tangible, emotional, supremely interesting world, with many things still beyond his experience. This world is so richly realised that we, the audience, don’t want to leave it behind: the consensus among my friends was we didn’t want the play to end.

The production is brimming with ideas, most of them spinning our experience off its axis just enough to bring us into Christopher’s territory: he engages with people less than we do, on the other hand objects around him have almost human qualities (a superb sequence of him searching his father’s bedroom finds humour and poetry in his interaction with the inanimate – is it? – world). People and objects often float around him, like they are in space. Numbers are more important than bricks in the representation of houses

Christopher himself is such a rich layered character that his Asperger’s syndrom (or his behavioural problems as he says) is almost a red herring. He is self absorbed, but his self absorption is honest (and is he more self absorbed than many people I know? I am not sure). It’s tempting to say, for someone with his diagnosis, that he is dispassionate, but that can’t be further from the truth: his curiosity, determination, principles are full of passion. A slight change of perspective and his methodical approach to the world makes everyone else seem a little, well, disturbed. (In other words, he only has a disability because everyone else can’t match his skills).

Which brings us to Luke Treadaway who plays Christopher. Looking at his theatrical CV, I think I have seen almost everything he has done, but that knowledge hadn’t prepeared me for his work here: words like “breakthrough” and “tour de force” has been invented for performances like that. An immensely physical effort, on stage the whole time,  every aspect of the character has been invested with almost otherworldly grace and intelligence. His Christopher is not strange because he has a disability. He seems strange because he opens the door to another world, and, as the best hosts, in that world he is the most gracious engaging person.

Paul Ritter and Nicola Walker, as Christopher’s parents, bring real depth of emotion to the story, but they are not, under any circumstances, the tortured parents of a disabled child. Their struggle is to get and stay close to their son, small gestures of intimacy heartbreaking and huge, while battling their own shortcomings. A group of other actors, including Una Stubbs and Niahm Cusack, play other characters in Christopher’s life, sometimes more than one. You have to wonder whether most people, in Christopher’s eyes, are interchangeable.

Another thing I loved, this time about the text: it dares to be playful, and not only because of its dry humour: sometimes the play knows it is a play, other times it’s a story Christopher has control of (there is an hilarious gag with a policeman). Some other times, it takes a more conventional approach to storytelling. All these aspects blend beautifully and seamlessly, but also keep the audience on its toes.

Set design is a combination of the minimalistic and the colourful, with props and objects often changing into something else. Beautiful work from the movement director (Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly), and although the piece doesn’t take an abstract approach, many sections are very close to dance.

A word of advice: don’t leave the theatre in a hurry. There is an extra little thing tucked at the end, at least five minutes after curtain call. Nicola Walker and Niahm Cusack rushed out from backstage to watch it themselves, so I don’t think it has been in all performances so far. I am not convinced it will be in all performances from now on. Maybe we have been an extremely lucky audience last night and we experienced something truly rare. In more ways than one.

SPOILER (not a huge spoiler but it will be a nice surprise if you don’t know): a (real live) puppy is brought on stage (or rather revealed from a box) towards the end of the play. Not only that, but it proceeded to peed all over the stage. The audience’s reaction was appropriately enthusiastic to both.

UPDATE: My partner in crime revstan published her review, definitely worth the read.

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