It’s that book that everybody says they’ve read. When telling people that I was going to see Apollo Theatre’s seven-time Olivier Award-winning production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the reaction was universal: “That’s the one about the boy with autism, right?”. That, and so much more.
For those who are only acquainted with the plot in these very simple terms, Curious Incident is a novel released in 2003 by Mark Haddon about a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s named Christopher Boone. Christopher attempts to solve the murder of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington, while trying to adapt to tumultuous family circumstances. In the meantime, he develops astonishing abilities in mathematics, eventually securing an A* in his A-Level exam amid the mayhem.
The protagonist of Marianne Elliott’s performance was originally played by Luke Treadaway, who scooped the award for Best Actor at the Olivier Awards in April, before Mike Noble took over in September. These were giant shoes for Noble to fill, but he was superb. From sliding to the ground in moaning distress to repelling all attempts by loved ones to touch him, he convincingly rendered the quirks of living with Asperger’s.
It was Treadaway who admitted that before playing the role of Boone, he knew “pretty much nothing about autism.” Many of us would admit that we are in the same boat. When confronted with a teenager in obvious distress, how many of us would try to understand Christopher rather than reject him as “weird”? How many of us would condemn a boy who actively repelled any attempt at physical contact as rude, rather than trying to find the reason why?
Aside from the characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome, one of the more educational functions of the play was to show just how much of Christopher there is in ourselves. He understands the world in simple and factual terms, breaking down information into regimented blocks and absorbing it: often to humorous effect. And yet he is remarkably calm in the circumstances when it transpires his mother (Amanda Drew) has left to shack up with neighbour Mr Shears (Daniel Casey), a truth Christopher’s father (Trevor Fox) attempts to skirt around by telling him she died of a heart attack. He simply overcomes his lack of independence and fear of the unknown to find a way to get back to her.
This powerful human element is neatly enhanced by the innovative theatrical elements of the production. Playwright Simon Stephens had originally talked of the “adaptation problems” he feared when first trying to translate the original novel to the stage, but director Elliott dealt superbly with these challenges. The explosion of figures appearing onstage when Christopher is distressed – he calms his troubled mind by repeating the geometric sequence – visually conveyed his mathematical thought process; don’t we all think of certain comforts or memories to assuage our angst? The artificial black box set, too, conveys a sense of claustrophobia, which frustrated children and parents everywhere can identify with.
Most significantly, the dramatic conceit of the play works seamlessly. Elliott tweaked the original plot of the novel slightly, making Christopher’s special-needs teacher Siobhan (Rakie Ayola) decide to transform his story into a play. The result is a mixture of narrative and action, as Ayola reads us segments of the plot before handing pivotal scenes onto Noble.
Clunky? Not at all. In fact, it brings the acted scenes into sharper focus. As a result, you could feel the suppressed emotion when Christopher played with his train set in an attempt to shut out the anguish caused by his father and mother’s separation, and his father’s attempts to erase her from Christopher’s consciousness.
Make no mistake, making this production work cannot have been easy. The book remains revered, and an insensitive or lazy play would have taken some of the shine out of Haddon’s original creation. Instead, it offered something deeply moving which both demonstrated Christopher’s unusual qualities and also the characteristics we all possess: obstinacy, curiosity and sensitivity. The only difference is that those of us who did not understand Asperger’s might not have noticed the brilliance in Christopher, only a “difficult case”. As well as providing a thrilling spectacle, Curious Incident has done everything in its power to change societal attitudes to autism.
Currently booking until October 2014.