As an admirer of Mark Haddon's unique novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I was delighted to learn of the National Theatre's successful stage adaptation, which won no less than seven Olivier Awards last season, including "Best New Play." I arrived at the Apollo Theatre box office to obtain a discounted seat for the December 19 matinee. A young man ahead of me in line - who had already seen the play twice and was excitedly promising it would transfer to Broadway - kindly allowed me to buy the last ticket instead of him. Little did I know that a few hours following that performance (during which I was seated in the front row, craning my neck with two dozen high school students frantically scribbling notes throughout the play) the Apollo Theatre would make international headlines when the ceiling caved in and brought the top balcony down with it, injuring over 80 stunned spectators. I am grateful to have emerged unharmed but was certainly not unmoved. I am very hopeful that the run of Curious Incident will resume as soon as possible, as the show offers a meaningful depiction of autism and the impact of the condition on families around the world, as explored through the mind of a young boy - Christopher Boone (Jack Loxton, who gives an arresting performance) - in an innovative production that should not be missed.
Christopher finds people confusing (especially their body language and constant use of metaphors, which he interprets literally), and he really, really does not like to be touched. He can recite any prime number and is highly anticipating his A-level maths exams. He has a train set, a pet rat, a volatile yet devoted father, a mother his father told him died of a heart condition, and an optimistic teacher whose non-judgemental advice provides Christopher with rare moments of calm and clarity.
He is shocked when he discovers Wellington, his neighbour's dog, has been murdered with a gardening fork, and, after fighting with a police officer who spotted Christopher at the scene of the murder, he resolves to play detective in order to find the culprit. Normally uncomfortable interacting with strangers, he begins knocking on doors to question everyone he can, in spite of his father's stern cease and desist order. After Christopher refuses an elderly neighbour's invitation for him to come inside to have tea and sensible conversation, calling her a "stranger," the neighbour - in an endearing performance by Gay Soper - responds, "I'm not a stranger, I'm a friend." She later explains to him the circumstances surrounding his parents' dysfunctional relationship. The truth hurts, and Christopher feels he can no longer trust his father. He resolves to reunite with his mother - who indeed did not die - in London.
The smart script, coupled with Loxton's tour de force performance, allows the audience to understand perhaps more deeply than ever the overwhelming mental exhaustion that can beset those who, due to autism, struggle to process the sorts of human interactions integral to functioning in society. Moreover, while there is considerable public discussion concerning the deleterious impact of autism on families (and marriages), it is helpful to understand how Christopher processes his parents' frustrations and challenges. The audience also grasps just how much damage a lie can inflict, in spite of its initial convenience. At its core, this is a play about trust.
Much-needed comic relief is provided by frequent references to theatrical conventions, whereby Christopher is understood by his parents and teachers to be shaping the theatrical representation of his life. Christopher will at times pause the action and say "no, that's not how it happened," and the supporting cast adjusts and replays certain bits accordingly. Near the end of the play, as Christopher gets ready to explain how he tackled a tricky problem on his A-levels math exam, his teacher (played by Rakie Ayola) suggests that perhaps the audience might not be so interested in the explanation and would prefer he finish the play instead. Those wishing would be invited to stay in their seats after the performance (!).
Curious Incident translates ingeniously to the stage. Director Marianne Elliot ensures brisk and often breathless pacing, and she wisely has members of the excellent supporting cast - who mostly play stock characters, whose lives seem far simpler than that of our protagonists - seated in neutral position along the perimeter of the stage, watching Christopher's interactions and reactions. Bunny Christie's versatile set - a gridded chalkboard on three walls and the stage floor, with various trapdoors and some rungs - offers Luxton ample room to illustrate to the audience his character's thoughts and feelings, often drawing faces expressing various emotions, as in the novel. When Christopher must confront his fear of riding trains in order to travel to London, the back wall of the set begins to move inward, drawing him closer and closer to the track. It is in this scene that Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett's use of stylized movement is most effective.
Following Christopher's adventures and anxieties is exhausting for the audience, but when he finally slows down and reminds us of his humanity ("I'm very tired," he tells his mother, an understatement of the highest order), Christopher emerges as a pre-teen like any other, with the capacity to channel his energy and brainpower towards the well being his family. At once thrilling and heart wrenching, Curious Incident offers an important view of autism, to be sure, but it is also a play that explores truth and family.