“Does that mean I can do anything?” 15 year old Christopher Boone (Siôn Daniel Young) asks his kindly teacher (Rebecca Lacey) in the closing words of the play. Having travelled to London on his own, achieved an A* at Maths A level – surely now the world is Christopher’s oyster. Christopher goes to a “special needs” school (all the kids are “stupid”) he doesn’t like yellow and brown or being touched. His experience of and interaction with the world is strikingly beautiful at times, intensely stressful at others. But after all what is “normal” about his dad’s building anger and frustration, or his mum’s mysterious absence, or his elderly neighbour’s overeager approaches? Perhaps we all can read “curious” one way or another.
Adapted by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliott, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time has won 7 Olivier awards including Best Play in 2013. After opening in 2012 in the Apollo and moving to the Gielgud when the ceiling fell in, it has also transferred to Broadway. There is a fair amount of swearing, earning it an 11+ guidance rating.
I read Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time years ago and was intrigued to see how the National Theatre would capture its unique, unusual and painfully honest voice for the stage. In fact the stage is a key player and a story in itself – huge credit due to Bunny Christie for the innovative design. It is a black light-edged box which flashes and fizzles with Christopher’s feelings and interpretations. We flicker from one place to the next, flawlessly: projections create houses on Christopher’s street in Swindon, the back wall becomes an escalator on the Underground; we are entirely plunged into dingy darkness lit only by Christopher’s torch, as he searches for his book under his dad’s bed. My personal favourite moments are the light shows: the rain like showers of light (Christopher likes watching the rain, as it makes him think about how all the world is connected); and the completed train set which closes the first half with trees, bridges, and wonderfully, a miniature Big Ben and London Eye.
Christopher is particularly comical in his repetition of others’ accents and pronunciations, and in his interpretation of metaphors (which are just lies, essentially, and confusing). Whilst Christopher always tells the truth, he collides with a parent-led, adult world which is altogether less honest and straightforward. Keen to figure out who murdered Mrs Shears’ dog, Wellington, Christopher moves door to door, methodically investigating the crime with a clipboard and set of questions. When things stray from these straight lines Christopher’s world as he knows it is shattered and confusion and pain reign. The deep emotional stress is most painfully felt in Christopher’s furious construction of the train set snaking across stage, taking train tracks from spaces concealed in the stage walls as a letter from his mother is read out. The stage reads chaos as an explosion of letters falls.
When Christopher is drawing on the stage floor (another surface for doodles, like the walls) I have a strange sensation things might start sliding off the stage altogether, upended as they are when Christopher floats through space as an astronaut above earth and amongst the stars. With his pet rat Toby, of course. Pets are crucial to Curious, worth jumping on to the tube tracks for in fact. Indeed by far the most appreciative audible reaction from the audience goes to the tiny, adorable golden Labrador puppy which fleetingly appears on stage.
Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher, acts as narrator and structures the story – the premise being that she has suggested to Christopher that they turn his story in to a play. This idea is introduced in the second half, and there is a little fun had with directing (“shout at him louder”) and the promise Christopher can explain the answer to his first A level maths question after the play has finished. He actually does, too. Simon Stephens background as a teacher certainly comes to the fore. Stephens has explained he wanted the play to be about “the gesture of teaching” – something he believes theatre and education share (interview here: http://www.curiousonstage.com/blog/simon-stephens-on-teaching/) . Curious is now a GCSE set text so will no doubt prove a useful extra- curricular trip for school crowds, as well as a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening experience for the rest of us. Perhaps the overwhelming exhaustion Christopher experiences in noticing every little detail as he tries to travel on the roaring tube might prompt us to look up from our phones every once in a while and notice the world going on around us. We might see something remarkable.