The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been adapted by Simon Stephens, from the novel by Mark Haddon, and is playing at the National Theatre, London until 27 October. Nicole Fordham Hodges went to the preview earlier this month.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a must-read sensation when it was published in 2004. Its fifteen year old narrator, Christopher Boone, loves Maths, will only eat red food and has never been further than the end of the street by himself. Oh, and he had Asperger Syndrome.
Mark Haddon has since regretted using the phrase Asperger Syndrome to describe his quirky hero. Christopher refers to himself only as "someone who has behavioural problems." The Curious Incident started a debate which still rumbles on today: is Christopher an accurate representation of someone with AS?
"I think it's indicative of the way we think about people we label 'disabled'" wrote Mark Haddon, "that we can even ask this question. We would never ask if a character in a novel was a correct representation of a cellist or a lesbian or an archbishop. There is no such thing."
Either way Christopher Boone was a memorable, likeable, believable character. And now he's back and on stage. But will he manage to remain at the centre of his own story?
Suffice it to say Christopher (Luke Treadaway, Warhorse) uses his astonishingly eloquent lolloping physical presence to enact his story, interacting with the stage like a second skin. He sways out his dream to be an astronaut amongst stars projected onto the floor, chalks his mind through logical deductions, scuttles overwhelmed amongst frantic numbers.
Stephens' has adapted the story as a play within a play. Christopher's words are often read by his teacher Siobhan ( Niamh Cusack) from the detective story he is writing, then putting on stage. Somebody has killed Wellington the dog with a garden fork. But who? Christopher is determined to find out. However he unwittingly discovers some terrible family truths. Of course I won't tell you what they are.
Cusack's voice gives amplification to Christopher's, becoming at times a wise and powerful part of him. The rest of the cast are often used as props. As tables and chairs. At times he is shown as casting them or cutting their lines. He gives the lines of deliciously patronising Mr Shears ( Nick Sidi) to his mother, getting the laughs and the power back.
With Paule Constable's majestic use of lights, patterns and projections the staging is astonishing. Constellations, numbers and connections: it unfolds as a representation of Christopher's mind. There is joy in it. Christopher is shown piecing together a model railway, while he tries to solve his detective story and family mystery. As Christopher decides to make a momentous journey to London, a lit model railway appears chugging round the theatre, to audience gasps. Some might see it as cutesy. But for me this is Christopher's wonder made large.
There are discomforting moments where Christopher becomes the unwitting butt of jokes. At other times Christopher's thoughts make poetic soliloquys: he talks beautifully of the connectedness of water whilst his preoccupied father tries to sort out a plumbing emergency. Is the 'poetry' in Christopher's thoughts also passed to the audience behind Christopher's back? Perhaps that's part of the uncomfortable deal of being an audience. There's more comedy and poetry in all of our lives than any of us know.
Christopher's clarity shines on the blind practicality and ugly emotional dysfunction of the adults around him. He exposes the way most people look at things: "They do what is called glancing which is the same word for bumping off something and carrying on in almost the same direction."
Much of the dialogue functions sweetly straight from the novel. The encounters between kindly lonely neighbour Mrs Alexander ( Una Stubbs) and Christopher are particularly light, delicious and playful. There are more sweetly realised Cameo roles from Sophie Duval and Howard Ward.
Yet as scenes between the father Paul Ritter and mother Nicola Walker ( Spooks, Four Weddings and a Funeral) become increasingly anguished, Christopher's voice falls silent. The distancing play-within- a- play is forgotten. Such is the hesitant honesty of Paul Ritter's portrayal of the father that I feel like I am evesdropping. In a powerful performance, Nicola Walker makes the story universal: for what mother has not sometimes wished their lives had turned out differently?
As the second- half reaches its bordering-on-soap-opera crescendo, I long for the poetry and comedy of Christopher's perspective. I am meant to. It makes the return of Christopher's voice more triumphant.
Yes: Christopher Boone and his world do triumph in the end. Of course, I won't tell you how. The play continues quirkily after curtain call with an appendix showing how he solved his favourite mathematical puzzle.
I am left with a sense of wonder which transcends the messy emotional territory we humans often inhabit. Luke Treadaway's performance is astonishing: the staging itself a beautiful system, a masterful externalisation of an inner world.
'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' runs at the Cottesloe Theatre until 27 October.
It will be broadcast live to over 160 UK cinemas and 350 more worldwide on 6 September at www.ntlive.com