Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Adapted by Simon Stephens from the novel by Mark Haddon
National Theatre
Sheffield Lyceum

Joshua Jenkins and ensemble Credit: BrinkhoffMögenberg

Mark Haddon’s novel, written in 2003, allows us to enter the world and mental processes of 15-year-old Christopher Boon, who describes himself as "a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties".

In medical terms, he would be diagnosed as having "Asperger’s Syndrome" or "high functioning autism" but Haddon eschews labelling and asserts the individuality of Christopher’s condition and personality.

In the novel, Christopher is the narrator, so perceptions of his family, school, the neighbours in Swindon and his often bewildering and frightening experiences are recorded from his own special perspective in the diary he keeps.

In the excellent stage adaptation written by Simon Stephens first performed at the Cottesloe in 2012, the narrative is initially delivered by Siobhan, Christopher’s sympathetic teacher at the Special School he attends, who also voices his thoughts in later sequences.

This slightly distancing effect and the fact that other characters in the story are physically present during the action allows the audience to make their own, independent evaluations of role and relationships. This is particularly helpful in increasing awareness of the strain on the parents, with their own weaknesses and imperfections, struggling to cope with a range of behaviours which are distressing and very difficult to deal with.

This is a splendidly coherent production. Director Marianne Elliot has drawn out powerful performances from the central characters and ensured that the many supplementary roles are clearly defined and often amusing.

The visual aspects of the performance, set, lighting, use of video projection, are stunning and provide opportunities to see what Christopher is responding to or thinking about. They supplement the narrative by allowing us to see into his mind. Music and sound also make a vital contribution to this conceit.

Movement directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett (for Frantic Assembly) bring a distinctive and highly imaginative style to the action. Members of the ensemble represent inanimate objects and present props, shift the basic box units of the set to smooth and speedy scene changes and, most importantly, facilitate lifts, which in one instance has Christopher tumbling weightlessly through space and, in another, walking vertical walls. All of this is fascinating and appears effortless, though of course it is not.

A talented and versatile cast is headed by the two actors playing the part of Christopher, Joshua Jenkins and Chris Ashby on the press night.

Ashby’s performance is moving and persuasively convincing. His pained reaction to unacceptable behaviour from others, including a refusal to be touched, triggers withdrawal symptoms, moaning and at worst a violent response.

His coping strategies include logic and the reassuring certainty of mathematical formulae. Ashby plays with conviction and is impressive in the demanding physical aspects of the role.

There are also strong performances from Stuart Laing as his far from perfect father and Gina Isaac as the mother who finds the stress unbearable. Both actors show how torn they are by the love they feel for their son and how impossible it is to reach out to him.

In a variety of excellent cameo performances by the ensemble, Clare Perkins stands out as the vituperative Mrs Shears / weird Mrs Gascoyne and Lucas Hare as Roger Shears / Duty Sergeant etc. Others find distinct opportunities and comic possibilities in the smallest of parts.

The novel is now on the secondary school syllabus. How helpful reading the novel and seeing this production must be for the many teenagers who attended the press night. It will lead to a better understanding of a strange and unfamiliar mental condition, and hopefully to greater empathy for those living with it.

In a programme note, Mike Haddon tells us, "I might say that Curious is not really about Christopher at all. It’s about us."

Reviewer: Velda Harris