I was recently at a talk at Bloomsbury, publishers of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, where an editor said it was hard to imagine a time in young adult fiction without the voice of the main character, Christopher Boone. It feels likes it has always been here, she said.
The National Theatre’s acclaimed production, directed by Marianne Elliot, transferred to the West End’s Apollo Theatre earlier this month. Luke Treadaway reprises his completely believable portrayal of Haddon’s protagonist, a probably autistic (though this is never stated) fifteen-year-old seeking to solve the mystery of the dead dog in his neighbour’s garden. Sean Gleeson gives an understated performance as Christopher’s tolerant but flawed father, and the two work well together, creating a realistic, day-to-day relationship.
As Christopher himself explains to us, he never lies. He thinks literally, so that a metaphor such as “the apple of his eye” will send him shooting off in the wrong direction. It means that he finds conversations hard to follow and also that he is easily lied to. So when a major discovery in Christopher’s detective work reveals that his father has been deceiving him, he is immensely distressed. The plot is driven by Christopher’s misinterpretations and fears, as he tries to make sense of the behaviour of his parents, who have separated in confusing circumstances.
In Simon Stephens’ adaptation of the novel, the directness and emotional distance of Christopher’s highly original voice is translated excellently into the language of the stage. The narration is shared out, and a sense of being in a mind other than your own is created through startlingly bold design by Bunny Christie: a giant grid, like graph paper, is an almost permanent backdrop and is furnished with impersonal geometric, sometimes neon-lit shapes that stand in for household objects. It is a literal depiction of how Christopher sees the world, with other people disturbing its mathematical order.
There are some stunningly beautiful episodes, such as when Christopher lies in his garden looking up at a sea of stars and explains the Milky Way, or when he negotiates an escalator for the first time, alone and lost in London. The alien world of billboards and ticket barriers is reduced to a line drawing, with an underground station vividly brought to life through minimal props. There are poignant moments too, when warmth and softness break through the rigid structure of Christopher’s world – as when a real-life puppy appears on stage.
It is a shame, though, that the dialogue of the peripheral characters is slightly carelessly worked, especially compared with the life-like speech of the main ones. People tend to use the same language, whether they are an old woman in Swindon or a clerk on the tube. But the lack of colour here is more than made up for by a technical team that includes Paule Constable (lighting), Finn Ross (video) and Adrian Sutton (music). This is a play that manipulates all the senses – something that has a particular impact given Christopher’s own feeling of being overwhelmed, and often repelled, by sensory experiences.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is full of lively humour, unexpected turns and sophisticated drama. When, at the close of act one, his mother makes a revelatory confession via letter, Christopher’s mind reels. Frenzied, he builds a complex model train set, and the act culminates with the model steam train bursting into life, with hyper-realistic sounds effects. It is moments such as these – feats of sensitive direction and design – that have earned Haddon’s protagonist a place on the West End stage, where his distinctive voice will no doubt continue to resonate with audiences.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is playing at the Apollo Theatre. For more information and tickets, see the West End website for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.