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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time review (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

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How do you portray autism on stage? Casting an actor playing someone with autism is one thing, but how do you get inside his mind? How can theatre communicate the interior world of a 15-year-old boy? A kid whose prodigious gift for mathematics and knowledge of space makes him special, but whose ability to navigate the day-to-day world inhabited by family, neighbours and teachers is fraught with confusion, exasperation and anger.

The UK’s National Theatre touring production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time answers these questions with a joyous, heartfelt production that throws its cast of 10, and the audience, into the world of the boy, Christopher. Dazzling and urgent lighting, video, music, sound and movement – the play rarely stands still – allow us into his head to understand how maths, space, toy trains and his pet rat act as his refuge from the mercurial behaviour of the adults around him.

The play opens on an almost empty set whose walls and floor is a mathematical grid. At the centre lies a dead Golden Retriever, a garden fork still piercing his body. So begins this story of Christopher’s dogged investigation into who murdered his neighbour’s pet. It takes him beyond the (relatively) safe walls of his home and school to London. He narrates the story that sees him solve the mystery of the dead dog, but he is also forced to confront truths about his parents, whose frantic relationship with each other and him, he was either oblivious to, or hiding from.

The play is based on Mark Haddon’s famous novel of the same name and has been adapted by playwright Simon Stephens. The direct, literal language of Christopher propels the narrative as he runs away from home, but it’s the scenes where he grapples with the emotions of the adults that the economic script reveals its skill and empathy for its characters.

Marianne Elliott, who won a Tony award for her production of War Horse, also won a Tony and an Olivier for Curious Incident. It’s her aliveness to theatrical possibilities that lifts stories from the page to a stunning immersion into a three dimensional world. Along with her designer Bunny Christie, lighting designer Paule Constable, video designer Finn Ross, movement directors Frantic Assembly, sound by Autograph and music by Adrian Sutton, they create a life for Christopher that is as real as it is magical.

dog

Christopher’s journey takes him from home to school, Swindon to London, and from the Underground to Outer Space. The actors, most of who are on stage for the play’s entirety, play dozens of characters. Lights, video, sound and choreography transform them from hordes of commuters to surly ticket inspectors to frustrated policemen. Their bodies act as his bed, rescue him from an oncoming train, and lift him into space.

As Christopher, Joshua Jenkins’ compact physicality and gift for a droll, raised eyebrow anchors him as the centre of this world around which the other characters orbit. In particular, his distressed father Ed (David Michaels), his kindly teacher Siobhan (Julie Hale) and his mother Judy, played by Emma Beattie with an affecting, sort of worn-out love.

This is a play and a production filled with unforgettable moments and images; it’s for both kids, (over eight, probably), and any adult who will be reminded of what it was like to possess the fears and awe that come with childhood.

READ OUR INTERVIEW WITH PLAYWRIGHT SIMON STEPHENS HERE

At the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until February 25

 

3 responses to “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time review (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

  1. The author of the book has said repeatedly that the main character doesn’t have autism or Asperger’s and he never says that he has it in the story. More research next time.

    1. Hi Reader,
      When the book was first published its publishers described Christopher as “autistic” in press releases and in the book cover notes.
      As recently as 2014, the Broadway run of the play included “autism friendly performances”. According to the US organisation Autism Speaks: “The Theatre Development Fund’s Autism Theatre Initiative presented its first-ever autism-friendly performance of a non-musical Broadway play, the National Theatre’s production, THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The specially-priced performance featured adjusted lighting and sound cues and there was a special break room for anyone who wished to leave their seats during the performance”.
      “The play centers around 15-year-old Christopher Boone, a math genius with autism. The play is an adaptation of the 2003 novel by Mark Haddon.
      “Today’s performance was possible thanks to the generosity of the National Theatre America office and the following funders of the American Associates of the National Theatre: Tommy and Dee Hilfiger, Autism Speaks, and an anonymous donor. And to a grant from ‘New York Collaborates for Autism’.”
      An ‘autism- friendly’ performance could not be staged without the writer’s consent.
      Cheers,
      Ray Gill

  2. If this transported English production is as good as the production I saw in London in 2016 then Melbourne audiences are in for a treat! The marriage of good story telling with outstanding visual effects that wholly support the story telling is a joy. I have noticed some reporting of this as being for kids but, like the book, this is for everyone to enjoy.

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