The Theatreguide.London Review
Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time
National Theatre Summer 2012, Apollo Theatre Spring-Winter 2013, Gielgud Theatre Summer 2014 - Spring 2017
Mark Haddon's novel was a much-read and much-loved bestseller (as not all bestsellers are) a decade ago. Its tale of a teenager with Asperger Syndrome moving far beyond his limited comfort zone – first to solve the mystery of a neighbourhood dog's death, and then to travel to London on his own in search of his mother – without his fully realising how extraordinary and courageous he's being captured reader imaginations and sympathy.
Translating it to the stage, as adaptor Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott did for a limited National Theatre run last year, was an immense challenge, and this West End transfer gives a wider audience the opportunity to see how successful they were.
The biggest challenge was that the novel is told by young Christopher, who sees everything with precise accuracy and understands only some of it, so that the reader is sometimes a step ahead of him and sometimes amazed by where his unique thinking takes him. How to capture that voice in a theatre?
Stephens and Elliott, along with designers and choreographers, offer a number of solutions – and within that bounty lies both the production's glory and its limitation, because everything they come up with works only so far, and then they have to come up with something else.
The first attempt at getting Christopher's narrative voice into the play is to have him write his story as a school assignment so that his teacher (a sympathetic portrayal by Niamh Cusack) can read it out to us.
As artificial as that feels, it works for much of the first act, but then Christopher is on his own, and his scary train trip and arrival in London require an entirely new theatrical vocabulary, stylised and tightly choreographed group movements evoking the nightmarish experience.
And then we switch modes again, relying more fully than before on video-projected backgrounds (notably a delightful trompe l'oeil escalator) to help us see through his eyes. And then the teacher becomes a voice in his head. And then . . .
You are likely to be very impressed by each solution they come up with, but then recognise the failure that lies in their having to come up with a different solution a few minutes later.
Holding it all together are the performances of an impeccable cast led by Luke Treadaway as Christopher.
Treadway captures all the reality of this extremely intelligent but mentally crippled boy, including the rather endearing fact that aside from everything else he's occasionally just an ordinarily stroppy teenager, without overdoing the tics and signifiers.
This is no Dustin-Hoffman-as-Rainman 'Look at me! I'm acting!' performance, but a subtle and sympathetic immersion in the character.
As Christopher's parents Sean Gleeson and Holly Aird are not afraid to show the characters' imperfections and the strain that living with this very high-maintenance child has put on them, but always let us see their love for him and thus hold our sympathy.
And as the teacher Niamh Cusack does more than you'd think possible with a role that keeps changing from character to narrator to fantasy to symbol and back again.
Judging from the reactions of a few people around me, those who haven't read the book may have some trouble getting into the world of the play, while those who do know it may find themselves filling in too many gaps the playmakers haven't been able to translate to the stage.
Ultimately, like Dr. Johnson's dog (or the National Theatre's stab at dramatising Proust a decade ago), the remarkable accomplishment is not that they triumph but that they come as close to success as they do.
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