The award-winning British blockbuster makes its Sydney debut
Blockbuster movies happen every summer, but blockbuster plays are much more rare. And reasonably so: the art form is more ephemeral and restricted by geography. You can show the latest Avengers movie on thousands of cinema screens across the world, but a first-run play can only happen on one stage in one city at a time, and the theatrical arts don’t often generate pop-culture hype. Unless you’re Hamilton.
But Curious Incident is a legitimate blockbuster – it ticks all the boxes that can help a play achieve success. It’s based on a multi-award winning, millions-of-copies selling novel by Mark Haddon; it was adapted to the stage by popular British playwright Simon Stephens, and its tech-forward first production in the UK made such a splash that the show earned seven Olivier Awards – at the time, an equal first for most Oliviers in history (it’s since been beaten by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). The production transferred to Broadway, where it won the Tony Award for Best Play, and it’s popped up everywhere from Japan to Belgium. Needless to say, Curious Incident is a play that has arrived in Sydney with a fair amount of hype. Does it live up to that reputation?
Well, yes and no.
The story goes something like this: Christopher (Joshua Jenkins), who is neuroatypical, has stumbled across his neighbour’s murdered dog. As he attempts to uncover the mystery of what happened to Wellington, some surprising and painful family secrets are revealed. Christopher loves Sherlock Holmes, and begins to write a book about his detective experiences for Siobhan (Julie Hale), his school mentor – and, in the play, his narrator.
Directed by Marianne Elliott and built by a top-notch British design and movement team, whose other ‘spectacle play’, War Horse, toured Australia in 2013, the production uses technical effects to show us Christopher’s perception of the world. When he is overstimulated, a screeching noise overtakes the theatre; words on passing street signs fill the screens that serve as a backdrop and shout at us; the red line Christopher focuses on to walk through a busy, confusing street is illuminated every step of the way.
These effects are still arresting – particularly in the second act, when Christopher ventures far outside his comfort zone – and the ensemble, who play everything from Christopher’s neighbours to doors and furniture, are a smooth, well-oiled DIY machine. There’s a lot happening in this production – there’s plenty to look at, consider and enjoy. As the play starts to break the fourth-wall and wink and nudge to its audience, it has moments of warm, appreciated humour.
But the production, and all its literal bells and whistles, are much more interesting than the play itself. In the 15 years since Haddon’s novel was first published, the author has walked back on claims that Christopher has an autism spectrum disorder as proclaimed in the book’s original blurb (he did no research on the subject when writing it) and the autism community has critiqued the book and play’s portrayal of neurodiverse people. On stage in 2018, the story veers dangerously close and occasionally crosses the line into disability inspiration and tragedy porn. It feels tired and ill-conceived (especially the play’s ending), and sometimes seems to sacrifice nuance for exciting storytelling.
That’s not to say that the production is not well-meaning – we are encouraged to love Christopher, and we do – and the play as a whole is reasonably good-hearted, if misguided. The cast is committed, talented and game, led by Jenkins, who is deeply immersed in the part, with strong work from Hale, along with Emma Beattie and Stuart Laing as Christopher’s family. There are treats for animal lovers (live puppy alert!), maths (equation chat alert!) and model trains (train alert!), and the show runs remarkably smoothly, if bloodlessly.
This isn’t the kind of theatre that cuts to the heart of an issue and startles us out of our complacency. This is Event Theatre – all lights and British accents and fancy effects and being able to say “I saw Curious Incident” to your co-workers the next day, and knowing they might have heard of it. If you want to be challenged, save your pennies – but if you’re looking to be entertained, you could make worse choices.