The West End run of The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time came to a sudden end in December 2013 when the ceiling of the Apollo theatre collapsed.
Three casts, seven Olivier Awards and one disaster later, Marian Elliot’s production of Mark Haddon’s novel is back on at the Gielgud Theatre. It would be an understatement to say I was literally over the moon when my husband gave me two tickets to see the adaptation of one of my favourite novels on the stage. (Ross is now an expert in how to keep a literary geek happy.)
The original hilarious and heart breaking crossover novel for adults and children won the Whitbread Book Award for Best Novel and Book of the Year, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and was also shortlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal Award in 2003.
The novel follows the story of Christopher Boone, a fifteen year old boy who describes himself as a ‘mathematician with some behavioural difficulties, living in Swindon, Wiltshire.’ Christopher attends a special needs school not because of his physical disabilities or epilepsy but because of his poor social skills and the effect they have on his behaviour.
Christopher’s condition is never defined in the text of the novel. However much to the disappointment of Haddon himself the books blurb did refer to Asperger syndrome, high functioning autism and savant syndrome when it was published. In July 2009 Haddon wrote on his blog that ‘Curious Incident…is not a book about asperger’s…if anything it’s a novel about difference, about being an outsider like Holden Caulfield, Robinson Crusoe or Jane Eyre.’ Novelist’s will always be attracted to outsiders. Haddon went on to say ‘if anything it’s a novel about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way.’
Christopher exhibits traits that are recognisable on the autistic spectrum, but his behavioural problems are also a metaphor for the solitariness of the human condition. ‘…and I went into the garden and lay down and looked at the stars in the sky and made myself negligible.’ ”Curious is not really about Christopher.” Haddon concludes. ”It’s about us.”
The idea of the central character of fiction being socially naive is of course not new. Voltaire’s Candide, or the child in the Tin Drum, or Pip in Great Expectations are memorable examples of how through the eyes of an innocent – the story, the deceit-ridden, emotionally charged world of the adults around them takes on a totally new perspective.
Simon Stephens manages to crystallize that metaphor in his stage adaptation, which mirrors Haddon’s structure of a book within a book, by presenting Christopher’s experiences as a school play, narrated by his teacher Siobhan (Sarah Woodward).
Happiest contained in a small space with no one else but Toby the rat, Christopher is propelled into a terrifying world of messy emotions and lies when he finds the neighbours dog ‘Wellington,’ impaled with a garden fork.
I do not agree with critics who have said the play lacks the quirkiness of the original novel. This is a very lazy reading of the production. Bunny Christie’s ingenious design – a monochrome mathematical grid onto which diagrams, rail tracks, emotions and cascades of numbers are displayed – is an inspired representation of Christopher’s mind. Coupled with Paul Constable’s lightning design, it brings the production into the dimension of theatrical greatness. Potentially one of the first instances of ‘total theatre’, in this generation.
You can see exactly where the money you paid for your ticket went into this production, as it is a real showcase for how to utilise modern-day technology on stage. However this decision by the director has not just been made to show off to the audience. More importantly it makes real the confusion and sensory processing difficulties experienced by Christopher on his lone journey from Wiltshire to London in search of his mother.
The limited space of the stage that the actors have to work in only heightens Christopher’s feelings of not being able to cope. There were definitely moments when I found the sensory overload uncomfortable and wished to be outside. The theatre gives you a lived experience of how terrifying it is to exist in a world with any kind of learning difficulty, in a way that you can not get from just simply reading the text.
The role of Christopher Boone is demanding but also something of an actor’s gift in a similar way to playing Hamlet or Lear. Christopher functions on so many different levels, with a spectrum of rhythms, that only the most talented of actors could sustain the role. Luke Treadway famously won a Olivier award for his portrayal of Christopher, but it seems Abram Rooney can rival Treadway’s outstanding delivery making the character his own. In my opinion Rooney is a brilliant young actor who is sure to go far.
However it is not Rooney alone who makes this production outstanding. All of the cast go out of their way to make the show what it is with touching performances from both Nicolas Tennant and Emily Joyce as Christopher’s parents Ed and Judy. Sarah Woodward’s attentive portrayal of Siobhan is also worthy of applaud.
Mark Haddon said he also regretted the words ‘Asperger syndrome’ appearing on the cover of his novel, because of the misguided and heated debate that still goes on today over whether or not Christopher is a correct representation of someone with a learning disability? The assumption being that there is a correct example of a person with such a condition. We would never ask if a character in a novel was a correct representation of a pianist, or a mother or a buddhist monk, because there is no such thing. The same is true of people who are given the label ‘disabled,’ and we must never forget that these people are individuals.
The labels used by pediatricians, psychiatrists, GP’s and other kinds of doctors and psychologists, tell us more about the people doing the labelling than the person being labelled, an important message in Haddon’s novel.
Therefore I ask the question does Christopher seem real? Having worked as an occupational therapist for a number of years with children and young adults aged 3yrs-20yrs, with varying learning difficulties I can say that for me Christopher is very real. I can’t think of writer who has captured the voice of a young man with learning difficulties as spot on as Mark Haddon does in his novel. This is why I love the book and the play so much.
The bitterly funny lines from the original novel are still present in the play:
‘…and some dogs were cleverer and more interesting than some people. Steve, for example, who comes to centre on Thursday, needs help to eat his food and can not even fetch a stick. Siobhan asked me not to say this to Steve’s mother.’
‘Metaphors are lies.’
However for me the brilliance of this adaptation lies in the way it presents the much darker scenes of the original novel. In my work I have seen the constant struggle parent’s and carer’s face in bringing up children with behavioural problems. I therefore feel that witnessing scenes such as the breakdown of Christopher’s parents marriage and his mother’s depression on stage are much more moving than just reading about them in the novel.
Christopher’s own struggle does not end with him finding his mother, solving the mystery of who killed Winston and getting an A* for his A level Maths. The play does not sugarcoat the reality of living with a learning disability for when Christopher asks Siobhan at the very end of the play ‘Can I do anything?’ she refuses to answer.
It is easy to see why ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,’ has won seven Olivier Award’s. All of the elements of the production work together in a beautiful unison to produce one of the best pieces of theatre I have ever seen in my life. I promise you will not be disappointed.
A top tip without giving away any spoilers – don’t be in too much of a hurry to leave the theatre at the end of the performance otherwise you might miss out!
Thank you to my wonderful husband for taking me to see the production and dinner at Simpson’s in-the-Strand afterwards wasn’t too bad either.