Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 5, 2014
The National Theatre Production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time A new play by Simon Stephens. Based on the novel by Mark Haddon. Directed by Marianne Elliott. Scenic & costume design by Bunny Christie. Lighting design by Paule Constable. Video design by Finn Ross. Choreography by Scott Graham & Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly. Music by Adrian Sutton. Sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph. Hair & wig design by David Bryan Brown. Cast: Alex Sharp, Taylor Trensh, Francesca Faridany, Ian Barford, Enid Graham, Helen Carey, Mercedes Herrero, Richard Hollis, Ben Horner, Jocelyn Bioh, David Manis, Keren Dukes, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Tom Patrick Stephens, Tim Wright.
If there's no other concrete accomplishment to the National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time just opened at the Ethel Barrymoreand it's a close callit's that playwright Simon Stephens and especially director Marianne Elliott have done just this. Setting aside intricate plot and trenchant feelings, they've structured the whole of their adaptation of Mark Haddon's 2003 novel to fusing you so completely with the main character that, by the time you walk out the theater, you'll be half-convinced you're still seeing through his eyes.
Those eyes, in the world created by Elliott and designers Bunny Christie (sets and costumes), Paule Constable (lights), Finn Ross (video), and Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett (movement and choreography), perceive the places and people around them as constantly shifting into and out of reality, with even the most familiar faces barely discernible against a wall of unrecognizable reality. Fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone (Alex Sharp) views life as a black graph-paper box on which he can draw, into which he can move individual visual elements as they occur to him, and that ultimately belongs to him and him alone. Proceed too far into it, interrupt his established order, and you're in trouble.
Though his precise psychological affliction is never named, the seemingly autistic, if high-functioning, Christopher of this production can't be touched (literally or figuratively) or nudged off his appointed course without making a scenefrom his position on the inside, suburban England and downtown London proper are (understandably) chaotic places. As he sees them, street signs throb with anger, subways are mazes fused with rampaging dragons, the numbers (often prime) with which Christopher is obsessed explode from behind his ears to taunt his waking and dreaming moments. There is never an instant of peace for him; even his most innocent exploration could be the one that shuts him down for good.
You'll endure every single, terrifying detail of this viewpoint, seeing them unleashed with no shortage of creativity or surprise, and leaving you wondering if their staging toolkit is indeed bottomless. (Christopher's scaling the walls of the London tube was my favorite unexpected delight, but there are plenty of others.) Better yet, Elliott and her crew render these effects with such blood-drawing precision that the evening becomes one of the most intensely theatrical to hit Broadway since War Horse in 2011. That's an apt title for comparison, as Elliott directed it as well, bringing to vibrant life animals, personal desolation, and most other componentsboth minuscule and enormousof World War I.
Not that it needs to be, of course, but the staging needs to feel of a piece with the writing. Elliott may well have found the exact theatrical equivalent of Haddon's bracing depiction of Christopher's wandering thoughts, but it's usually at odds with the action, trying to make it bigger than it wants to be or can be, and thus coming across more gimmicky than organic.
It's all fascinating, perhaps even brilliant, for purposes of a character study, but you keep hoping through each new minor development and microscopic twist of personality that the pieces will unite into something of genuine size and relevance. Aside from bewildering, half-hearted recasting of the tale as a play Christopher wrote and is now performingor imagining performing inside his head?that doesn't happen. And because that doesn't happen, you're constantly aware of how, beyond the clever machinations of its staging, the show isn't just insignificantit's all but nonexistent.
Even the supporting roles are essentially afterthoughts. They're smartly depicted, as is everything else, through Christopher's clouded eyes, but that results in a broad, shallow style that gets tiresome after only a scene or two. The ensemble is finewith but a couple of exceptions, it's little more than a line here and a line therebut Ian Barford is one-dimensionally blustery as Christopher's father, Ed, and Francesca Faridany's portrayal as Christopher's teacher, Siobhan, is precious to the point of inducing cavities. Enid Graham, as idealized mom Judy, is well poised to find a more realistic, tolerable balance that lets her effect a more comforting, sympathetic light onstage, and Graham lets loose with all the warmth she can.
All that's allowed to be cogent is Christopher, and it's easy to see how, with the right actor, he could be. But Sharp, though unquestionably energetic at romping through Christopher's every-which-way psyche, distances himself too much from his surroundings to involve you outside of a vague intellectual level, and employs a voice at once whiny and monotonic, something that makes listening to Christopher's endless speeches and explications a chore. That makes the least sense of anything: If we're supposed to view everything just as Christopher does, shouldn't he seem normal, or at least unaffected, rather than a first-tier, can-barely-be-left-alone Asperger case?
Pile on the concepts too heavily and they quickly become impossible to reconcilethat's what's happened with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which boasts no end of innovation but manages to be, at best, resistible theatre. As was true with War Horse, Elliott deserves plaudits for reminding us that plays don't need to be stuffy, sticky affairs just because they're on Broadway. But they still should be more than this state-of-the-art example of how to make nothing look like something without ever bestowing it with any actual substance.