Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is kind of a big deal. Since its opening, 6 years ago, it has attracted audiences of all ages to watch what might very well be described as a revolutionary piece of theatre. Representation of disabled people in the media is scarce, and in West End theatres, even more so. Director Elliot’s decision to adapt Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel of the same name brings autism centre stage. And there’s the rub.
‘Curious Incident’ (as it’s come to be known) follows 15-year-old Christopher Boone (Joshua Jenkins) as he tries to investigate the murder of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington. But this initially small-scale investigation unravels a whole lot more than Christopher initially expected. In this sense, it’s a whodunnit like any other. The difference with ‘Curious Incident’ is that Christopher is autistic. Sort of.
Haddon’s novel is written in a really distinctive style: the chapter titles are prime numbers, rather than 1,2,3 etc; the style of delivery is very direct, matter of fact, simple; the protagonist finds human interactions difficult, and hates being touched. Many people have read this as a story about Asperger Syndrome, and Elliot’s production certainly emphasises the ‘Christopher against the world’ element of disability narratives. Except that Haddon was been at pains to point out that the novel isn’t about autism, that he isn’t an autism expert, and that it’s really just a book about difference, rather than disability.
There are, of course, merits to finding a political message in an interesting novel, even if the meaning is subtly changed. Two-time Olivier Award-winning Simon Stephens’ adaptation changes the focus from the familial to the social. Paul Constable’s lighting design attempts to place us in the mindsight of an autistic child with bright lights and simple block colours. Frantic Assembly’s choreography emphasises how disorientating and distressing crowded places can be for autistic children. It’s hard to emphasise enough how influential Elliot’s neo-Berkoffian style has been, with endless productions imitating her stripped back, colourful style. ‘Curious Incident’ is a really important play for contemporary theatre.
But at what cost? The imposition of the disability narrative on Haddon’s novel deadens its beautiful subtlety. The story is really about Christopher’s often troubled but ultimately extremely intimate relationship with his father (beautifully played by Stuart Laing). But here, the focus is on how confusing the world is to Christopher. Though Jenkins’ performance is totally captivating, you can’t get away from the fact that we have a 30-year-old man playing a 15-year-old boy; the effect is that autism is problematically simplified and infantilised. While attempting to raise disability to visibility and representation, all sense of subtlety and individuality is lost.
Ironically, one of the most well-known facts about a still relatively invisible condition is that autism is a spectrum. Yet Elliot’s production fails to capture the sense that autism is sometimes a serious obstacle, and sometimes a fabulous tool for life (outside of the tired tropes of ‘socially awkward mathematical genius’ et al). There is so much more to say about autism than ‘we find real life terrifying, but we’re great at maths’. At it’s best, this production tries to make disability accessible to a wide variety of audiences, but it does that at the cost of making it critically unrealistic for the majority of autistic people.
And then there’s the massive, ridiculous irony of it all. The sound and light design are constructed in order to synthesise ‘what it’s like’ to be autistic with incredibly loud sounds and flashing lights. The extraordinary, baffling oversight of this is that this makes for an excruciating experience for any autistic audience members. How could they have missed this? But then we remember that the out of 1,232 seats, the Piccadilly Theatre has very few wheelchair accessible seats. And then we snap out of the dream of West End theatre being accessible and engaged. Hey ho.
Review by Thomas Froy
Winner of 7 Olivier Awards and 5 Tony Awards® including ‘Best Play’, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time brings Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel to thrilling life on stage, adapted by two-time Olivier Award-winning playwright Simon Stephens and directed by Olivier and Tony Award®-winning director Marianne Elliott.
Christopher, fifteen years old, stands beside Mrs Shears’ dead dog. It has been speared with a garden fork, it is seven minutes after midnight and Christopher is under suspicion. He records each fact in the book he is writing to solve the mystery of who murdered Wellington. He has an extraordinary brain, exceptional at maths while ill-equipped to interpret everyday life. He has never ventured alone beyond the end of his road, he detests being touched and he distrusts strangers. But his detective work, forbidden by his father, takes him on a frightening journey that upturns his world.
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time
16 Denman Street London W1D 7DY
Thursday 29 November 2018 – Saturday 23 February 2019