The award-winning British blockbuster lands in Melbourne to great expectations
There’s a certain kind of English commercial theatre that’s become a recognisable entity in the last decade, even from these distant shores. It’s usually slick, tight and punchy, but also often over-designed and overly insistent. From 1984 to War Horse, the theatrical effects are always meticulously planned and executed, but there’s often little room left for the actors, who come across as cogs in a very loud and complicated machine. Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time doesn’t entirely break this mould, but it is pleasing to see the actor as heart and soul of the piece.
In this case it is Joshua Jenkins, magnificent as Christopher Boone, the boy at the centre of this hybrid mystery/adventure story/domestic drama. Christopher is on what is commonly referred to as the ‘autism spectrum’; he has trouble reading facial expressions, he doesn’t like to be touched, he is incapable of lying. It’s a rather isolating existence, which wouldn’t bother him so much – his greatest dream is to be an astronaut, floating alone in glorious outer space – but for the fact that life has a tendency towards social interaction whether we like it or not. He’s thrown into the complications of adulthood when he discovers the body of a neighbour’s dog, a garden fork pierced through its belly.
Solving the crime becomes a ‘project’ Christopher feels he can get behind, even if it means having to interview locals about their whereabouts on the night of the dog’s demise. While his investigation will take him far from his sheltered world, it will also lead him dangerously close to home and to the secrets his mum Judy (Emma Beattie) and dad Ed (David Michaels) have kept from him for too long. Haddon’s novel is a bildungsroman, essentially, and the play embraces this coming-of-age aspect of the story. Every discovery Christopher makes is in many ways a self discovery.
The difficulty in adapting the novel lies in Haddon’s use of dramatic irony, where the central character remains unaware of something the reader senses. Autism is actually quite a common literary device where dramatic irony is concerned – Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project and Sofie Laguna’s Eye of the Sheep are recent examples from Australian literature, but the trope is arguably as old as Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot – but it’s not an inherently theatrical one. Stephens is forced to play out each interaction Christopher has with strangers, from police inspectors to bored teachers to magazine salespeople, and the results can begin to feel like a single joke on repeat.
The playwright is clever, though, and manages to turn repetition to his advantage. Christopher’s behaviour is, by his own description, ‘difficult to manage’ but his responses to metaphor and linguistic nuance are often hilariously predictable. Stephens mirrors this in the responses of other characters too, in particular the atonal parroting of his teacher Mrs Gascoyne (Amanda Posener). When Christopher does break from our expectation, as when he breaks the fourth wall and tells an actor he’s too old to play a policeman, the effect is almost triumphant.
Marianne Elliott directs with considerable skill and assurance – even a real puppy faultlessly performs a gag – and elicits strong performances from her versatile cast. Beattie is quietly effective as Judy, a woman who struggles with her responsibility but never with her compassion, and Michaels is excellent as Ed, a flawed man ennobled by his sense of duty. Julie Hale is very fine as Christopher’s encouraging teacher, Siobhan. But it is Jenkins who carries the play, and he does it with loads of charm and depth. Effortlessly nailing the adolescent wilfulness of this boy of 15, he also manages to suggest the man he will become. It’s not a flashy performance, but it is consistently winning.
Technically, with Bunny Christie’s gridded blackbox set that comes to dazzling life under Paule Constable’s lighting and Finn Ross’s video design, the show is certainly spectacular. There are hints of Robert Lepage’s work in the models that come magically to life, and the maps, numbers and images that pour onto the walls of the set give the audience the sensation of living in Christopher’s jam-packed mind. Sometimes these pyrotechnics are simply beautiful, as when we go on an imaginary journey to space, and sometimes they are merely distracting. A long sequence where Christopher takes a perilous train journey – a barrage of visual information that is clearly meant to convey the boy’s emotional turmoil but only serves to distance us from him – is a prime example of design that undermines an actor’s ability to connect.
Far more effective, and more wondrous than any design feature, is the production’s use of actors bodies to conjure not only the myriad people Christopher encounters but also the inanimate objects of his suburban existence. Actors play chairs, and beds and even an ATM. They are swinging doors and light switches. The last time we saw this kind of joyous naïve theatrical representation on the Playhouse stage was in 1995, in English company Complicite’s Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol. That stage was covered in rural dirt, and while this one is slick and shiny in comparison, it is also brought to life by the playful commitment of its actors. For all the pop and wizardry of this production, it is the simple image of a boy and his dad standing together contemplating the phenomenon of rain that lingers in the mind. Now that is curious.