The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time might be a mouthful of a name for a play, but readers of Mark Haddon’s much loved and much-awarded novel of the same title, on which it is based, will know it perfectly reflects the matter-of-fact way its protagonist provides detailed descriptions of the world around him. Telling the story of Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old boy from Swindon, England with a passion for mathematics, Haddon’s book provides an unparalleled insight into the mind of someone living with an autism spectrum condition. Likewise, Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation magically captures the internal experiences of a well-intentioned, but trouble-making kid.
One night, at seven minutes after midnight, Christopher (Joshua Jenkins) finds his neighbours’ dog Wellington, dead on their front lawn, impaled by a garden fork. The discovery kick-starts a series of events that see Christopher conduct his own investigation into who might be the perpetrator of the crime, recording all his findings in a journal that his teacher Siobhan (Julie Hale) has encouraged him to write.
Canvassing the neighbourhood for clues, Christopher encounters resistance from all fronts, especially from his father Ed (David Michaels), who demands he stops nosing around and confiscates his journal. The next day, while his father is still at work, Christopher finds where Ed has hidden the journal and at the same time uncovers information that throws everything his father has told him about his dead mother into question.
Playwright, Simon Stephens has rather ingeniously structured the story in a segmented fashion, having Christopher’s teacher Siobhan read out passages from the journal while the ensemble acts out the story, effectively creating a play within a play. However, the real magic of this production lies in the sheer wealth of new ideas shown on stage by genius director Marianne Elliot.
Readers of the novel will recall the myriad drawings, diagrams and equations Christopher uses to explain his point of view. To allow the same level of demonstration to happen on stage, designer Bunny Christie converts the floor and all three walls of the boxed-in set into mathematical graph paper, allowing maths whiz Christopher to literally, and through the power of Finn Ross’ delightful video projections, figuratively draw all over the set. Further, Paule Constable’s integrated lighting allows the dots on the graph paper to create rooms, objects and astronomical constellations across the stage.
But even that is not the limit of the technical wizardry that helps to make Curious Incident one of the most extraordinary plays of the last ten years. Marianne Elliot has not only directed her actors in a way that captures maximum emotional impact, but she has summoned a team of creatives who are all working at the peak of their powers and in perfect harmony. By bringing in a musical score by Adrian Sutton, which goes from driving electro synth to ethereally beautiful electric guitar, and combining that with subtly integrated choreographic movement from Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly, there are moments of sheer stage magic created, such as when Christopher explains why he would make a good astronaut. It’s not hard to see why this production won both the Olivier and Tony awards for Best Play, Director, Actor, Lighting and Set Designs.
In the lead role of Christopher, Joshua Jenkins is constantly at work in an extraordinarily verbose and physical part. Ably capturing the emotionally neutral and painfully literal and logical boy with great heart and empathy. Julie Hale offers oodles of warmth as teacher Siobhan, providing the audience’s way into his story and the heartbreaking truth at the centre of Christopher’s ambitions. David Michaels and Emma Beattie deliver the pain and frustration of parents of an emotionally disconnected child with care and empathy.
Viewers of the Broadway or London stagings (broadcast in Australian cinemas as part of NT Live) may find the production has become a little self-aware on its way to an international tour, playing for laughs a little harder and pushing emotional beats a little further. The touring set also redacts some stage trickery used by the West End production, but it is still a spectacular staging nonetheless.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is one of the most heart-ache inducing plays you’ll ever see, while simultaneously delivering a thoroughly uplifting theatrical experience. Be sure to stick around until after the bows, for reasons that will be explained to you through the story, to be left with an ecstatic feeling of celebration as you wind your way out of the theatre.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is on at Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse until 25 February 2018 as part of Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2018 season.