Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
Adolescent sleuth Christopher has “behavioural problems”, and sets out to uncover the truth about who killed his neighbour’s dog with a garden fork.
What follows in this adaptation of Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel is an unravelling of Christopher’s life, as secrets and lies come tumbling out and we are given an insight into the world of a teenager with a condition that is never explicitly explained, but is evidently Asperger Syndrome.
Christopher’s problem is depicted through a variety of tics and quirks; he hates yellow and brown things, is a maths prodigy, is happiest when he’s alone in a small space, hates to be touched. Eye contact is a rarity, blunt-speaking a symptom of naivety rather than rudeness, and when he is scared or confused, his fingers knit the air wildly.
The staging is simply stunning. A giant, black, graph paper grid dominates the performance space. It contains hidden doors and hidden drawers, hundreds of multi-coloured pulsate from within, drawings appear, projections pop into life… it’s both a set and a representation of Christopher’s mind. The set is the production’s most powerful presence.
That’s not to dismiss the cast, who are uniformly strong. Joshua Jenkins, as Christopher, does a good job of playing a complicated 15-year-old, and his scenes where the youngster loses control are uniquely powerful. The stand-out is Stuart Laing, who plays Ed, Christopher’s father. We feel his frustrations, his overwhelming love for his boy, his fear for his son, his fear of his son… this show is remarkably hard to watch in places.
For all the technology on display, the story is resolutely human. It’s about human flaws and your interpretation of this story will largely depend on whether you see the grown-up characters as people struggling to do their best, or adults behaving in a cruel, weak and selfish fashion.
Listen out for how often “I promise” is said to Christopher. Adults make promises that are shattered, while Christopher’s inability to tell lies is used against him, as he is coerced into making promises he is incapable of breaking. His promises are literal, to everyone else, they are just words. That uncertainty, instability and lack of trust permeates everything, and without being used like a blunt object.
However there are elements of the play that are too worthy and feel an awful lot like a youth club project about “issues”. This is most striking when “movement” (dance that is not dance and generally offers very little) makes an appearance. It doesn’t fit into the tone of the production and feels like a cheap, unnecessary and last-minute addition.
But by far and away, the biggest accomplishment is how director Marianne Elliott and designer Bunny Christie show us Christopher’s internal responses to the external world; and it’s a confusing, sometimes terrifying, place to be. Oversaturated sound and a deluge of projections create a sensory overload that mirror Christopher’s experiences.
It isn’t the flawless masterpiece you’ve been led to believe, but The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is an inventive, unsettling but ultimately uplifting, insight into the life of Christopher Boone.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time stays at the Marlowe Theatre until May 23, before continuing its UK tour.