A show about a dog… and more

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (The National Theatre)

QPAC, Concert Hall

June 12 – 24

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“I’m here to see a show about a dog,” an audience member obviously unfamiliar with Mark Haddon’s much-loved novel was overheard saying pre-show at opening night of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”. Dogs do bookend the show’s narrative, but the National Theatre of Great Britain’s acclaimed production is about so much more than this, or even the unusual event of its title.

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The story is of Christopher Boone (Joshua Jenkins), a 15-year-old boy from Swindon, England with autism spectrum disorder and a passion for mathematics, who finds his neighbours’ dog Wellington, dead on their front lawn, impaled by a garden fork. This kick-starts a series of events as Christopher makes it his mission to solve the crime of Wellington’s murder. While detectiving, he notes his findings in a journal that his teacher Siobhan (Julie Hale) has encouraged him to write. When his frustrated father Ed (Stuart Laing) confiscates the diary, a determined Christopher not only recovers his writing, but letters that reveal previously-unknown information about his dead mother.

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Rather than tell the story in first-person narrative, like the original novel, the segmented story is largely recalled by his teacher in share of Christopher’s writing, inset with moments in illustration and explanation of his unique world view, presenting like a play-within-a-play. This bring much humour as Christopher explains his dislike of metaphors and need for truth and predictability, and pathos too as he matter-of-factly describes how he hates being touched as much as the hates the colour yellow.

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Just like its literary source material, the play provides an unparalleled insight into the mind of someone living with an autism spectrum condition. In its original, award-winning London production in West End’s Gielgud Theare, the show had an essential intimacy that suited the story of the socially–challenged young man finding his place in the world. However, even within QPAC’s Concert Hall, its subtle soundtrack allows for moments of audience absorption, such as when Christopher’s dad tells his story.

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In many ways, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is a small story, conveyed in a big show and, accordingly, Act Two is much louder… deliberately so in contrast to the comfort of Christopher’s familiar life as his internal experience of catching a train to London with his Pet Rat is captured in an aesthetic offensive thanks to remarkable Lighting (Paule Constable), Sound (Ian Dickinson) and Video (Finn Ross) Design that has not decreased in its impact in the six years of the show’s life.

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Trains feature as an ongoing motif. In Act One, while talking to his teacher and us as an audience, Christopher progressively constructs an impressive train set around the stage, despite the quick scene transitions that occur throughout the show. Mathematics as a way of understanding and describing the world also features throughout the production. It not only serves as one of Christopher’s strengths but also becomes a perfect metaphor for his quest to make order and make meaning out of a confusing world.

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Like in the novel, Christopher uses drawings, diagrams and equations to explain himself. On stage this comes courtesy of Bunny Christie’s impressive design, which sees the floor and all three walls of the boxed-in set transformed into mathematical graph paper, meaning that Christopher can draw all over the set through the power of video projections. In one of the most visually memorable moments, Christopher’s attempt to escape his isolation through the imagined experience of flying as an astronaut in space, is impressively brought to life through incredible lighting and projections.

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Inventive, imaginative staging later sees boxes within the boxed-in stage transform into train seats, luggage and alike. And the ensemble of performers not only often operate with stylised movement, but become props themselves, serving as everything from a door to an ATM.

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Each member of the touring cast is solid in their variety or roles. Debra Michaels endears Mrs Alexander, an elderly resident of Christopher’s street, with warm, grandmotherly tendencies and Julie Hale is wonderful as the teacher all teachers want to be, caring and compassionate in her response to Christopher’s unique needs.

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Stuart Lang gives a measured performance as Christopher’s patient and protective, but emotionally-devastated single father and, as the boy’s mother Judy, Emma Beattie has us feeling at her inability to touch her own son. But “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is Christopher’s story and Joshua Jenkins gives a perfect performance down to the protagonist’s smallest nuance. He not only captures the part’s physicality and dialogue verbosity, but infuses it with honesty and great heart.

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Sometimes what, over time, what one builds up in recollection as the best theatre show ever experienced, upon revisit, ultimately leads to comparative disappointment. Four years after seeing the show in London, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” remains the best theatre I have ever seen. The Australian touring production may not celebrate the prime number seats within its audience, but it still has a treat in its tail, worth staying for beyond the curtain call.

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“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” treats audiences with an unforgettable viewing experience. With props and pyrotechnics that, although impressive, do not overpower its story’s emotional core, it represents a perfect combination of theatrical ingredients in a page-to-stage retelling that is both true to its source material but also adds so much more. And it is easy to appreciate how it won both the Olivier and Tony awards for Best Play, Director, Actor, Lighting and Set Designs. Although Christopher only understands what is immediate and what is the truth, experience of his show will certainly linger long for fortunate audience members.

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