THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME - MELBOURNE
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, National Theatre Production presented by Melbourne Theatre Company and Arts Centre Melbourne at the Playhouse, 11 January-25 February 2018. Photography by BrinkhoffM/Agenburg
Animated first night theatre-goers paused as they entered the theatre to see the open box set walled with lit-up graph paper and, centre stage, a dead dog impaled on a garden fork – through its ribs. It was as confronting as it was a cause to wonder what could happen next. But this is the theatre so it was quickly back to chatting until screeching sound and a blackout made us sit to attention.
For Christopher (Joshua Jenkins), a 15-year-old boy with an autism spectrum disorder, the dead dog – Wellington – is murder and he makes it his mission to solve it. Extraordinarily, it’s revealed as a murder mystery that makes you laugh and makes you think deeply about differences; of how life without empathy can mean a rawness and possibly more of a natural insight into things. And the unimagined distress of a parent not being able to touch or hug a child because the sensation of touch causes unbridled distress.
It is the direction by Marianne Elliott that draws us into Christopher’s world, with brilliant staging that has the ensemble of actors working in unison amid dramatic effects from the lighting (Paule Constable), loud and apt sound (Ian Dickinson for Autograph) and a mathematically genius LED-lit grid set design with a floor that lights up and takes you into the universe (Bunny Christie) that, all in all, makes for a truly brilliant experience. It is innovative and physical theatre and it brings this small human story to life.
Based on the 2003 book by Mark Haddon and adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens, Curious Incident has won seven Oliviers including Best New Play, and Best Play on Broadway among its five Tonys. The production we have in Australia is from the National Theatre in London, and their touring cast, all of whom are solid in their performances – each having a “moment” within the whole.
We meet Christopher dealing with the death of Wellington and the death of his mother, and a father not coping with a son who is different and a life that is unravelling. The continuity in Christopher’s life is the special school he attends and his teacher Siobhan, wonderfully played by Julie Hale. Christopher’s brilliant mathematical mind and his abhorrence of the colours yellow and brown or using strangers’ toilets or being touched by others adds to his turmoil. His world is his world. Siobhan asks him to write his story (Christopher would rather take his maths A Levels) and it is this story that is enacted.
In his sleuthing, he attempts to move through his fears of people and knocks on doors in his immediate street and searches his house where he unearths letters addressed to him – to “Christopher Boone”. He uncovers the actual whereabouts of his mother Judy, played with strength and empathy by Emma Beattie. His father Ed, in a strong understated performance by David Michaels, tries to keep Christopher from the truth and it creates a deep-seated rift. Christopher only understands what is immediate and what is the truth. Existing without empathy, he doesn’t feel the hurt of abandonment as his father does, but he does believe if someone is capable of murdering a dog then maybe he is next.
He fears his father and intends to search for his mother and live with her, which means an 80-mile trip from Swindon to Willesden (with his pet rat). The staging of this journey is remarkable. With the use of the grid and video design (Finn Ross) you experience Christopher’s unworldliness and we fear for him as he deals with noise and people and those strangers’ toilets!
Throughout the play the scene transitions are quick and you need to be agile to keep up, but the characters are well defined even from the Voice Two to Drunk One or Policeman or Woman on Train and the white cubes used as luggage, as seats, as boxes. A set within a set.
Christopher feels safe in mathematical equations, and Jenkins’ performance almost makes you feel like you too have a head for equations. And, no matter where you are on the spectrum – or not - live animals and puppies always raise a smile.
Not to be missed.