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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time - Review * 12 August 2012

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A remarkable stage adaptation of the beloved novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a visual feast of theatre, with superb work from all the actors including Sherlock's Una Stubbs.

Adapting a novel is a difficult task at the best of times when it comes to television and film, but when it comes to theatre it's probably all the more so. The National Theatre's current staging of Mark Haddon's book - arguably already a modern classic - is frankly an astonishing achievement, capturing the major events of the story completely with minimal alteration. Adapted by Simon Stephens and directed with eye catching style by Marianne Elliot - also the director of the National Theatre's celebrated production of War Horse - it is easily another production by the NT that deserves to be talked about for years to come.  

Taking place on a minimal, expanding set, the play begins with the discovery of a dead dog, impaled through the chest with a garden fork, by fifteen year old Christopher Boone. The dog's owner, Mrs Shears, stands in shock at the sight bellowing in rage and horror. What spins out from this stark beginning is part mystery, part social commentary, and part stunning character study. Despite the back cover of the book describing Christopher as being autistic, a savant, or having Asperger Syndrome - depending where in the world you purchase a copy - the exact nature of his condition is never stated in the prose or on the stage. Instead, he is high functioning, requires clear direct instruction rather than metaphorical or slang answers in conversations, violently shuns physical contact, and is obsessed with numbers and puzzles. The fact that a neighbour's dog lies murdered on a front lawn is just another problem to be solved to him, though his investigation will lead him down unexpected paths that will turn his world upside down.

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As Christopher, Luke Treadaway is frankly astonishing. Relating the complex thought patterns and behaviour of the character in incredible fashion, he completely holds the audience's attention. Despite being far older than Christopher, he is able to play a fifteen year old with total aplomb, bringing both his worldview and physicality fully to life. He quietly dominates the stage but plays off the entire ensemble superbly, each multitasking between a major part and multiple background characters. That cast includes Una Stubbs of course, playing both Christopher's neighbour Mrs Alexander and appearing throughout the duration in numerous non-speaking roles. Her part is critical in the narrative, as she inadvertently explodes Christopher's perceived family past through simple, sweet and friendly human interaction. Una is a radiant presence in the play, and slightly sportier than you may be expecting when you see Mrs Alexander's trainers!

Paul Ritter and Nicola Walker bring great credibility to the parts of Christopher's parents, displaying the strained relationship they have with their son and each other with a sense of genuine upheaval, but also a desperate love for the boy that swings between near despair, explosive frustration, and the ache for the physical affection that he shuns. Niamh Cusack has one of the more intriguing roles in the play, portraying Christopher's school teacher Siobhan as more of an omnipresent guardian angel than in the book. Here she is expanded to a secondary narrator, reading from the notebook Christopher has written on events and thus almost becoming an additional form of his consciousness.

That the narrative hinges on a mystery cannot go unremarked upon. It is genre bending and thought provoking, at times challenging and others very funny, with numerous deliberate little asides and moments that will draw the attention of fans of Sherlock Holmes. Most famously, the descriptive title of the book and play comes from an exchange between Sherlock Holmes and Inspector Gregory during the events of the short story 'Silver Blaze', and Christopher is stated to be a fan of the character. For the purposes of time, much of the material from the book relating to Holmes has been cut however.

The adaptation makes several minor changes for the stage, all of them good ones. The novel itself can be read in different ways, either humourous or disquieting. The play chooses to lean towards the funnier side thankfully, with the later vignette-like sections swinging completely into pure human drama as the situation becomes clearer. Aside from the expansion of Siobhan's role from the book, the play also adds an additional conceit with the idea the play we are watching is dramatised from the events Christopher relates within his notebook, taking the notion that the final printed novel is the transcript of that notebook and increasing it to true physical post modernism. It's slightly mind bending, but is only one small layer within the play itself and only becomes readily apparent on a couple of occasions when Christopher stops events and contradicts the performances of the other actors, effectively directing them to re-perform the moment as he 'remembers' it.

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The staging of the play itself is extraordinary. Initially quite stark and simple, the gigantic geometric flooring takes the appearance of graph paper and is coated in blackboard paint, allowing Luke Treadaway to draw across it with chalk. The set of the Cottesloe quietly expands and drops, and with the addition of expert lighting and sound design, as well as some dramatic sleight of hand, gives an instant sense of space and location through whip-crack scene transitions. Buildings and vehicles appear as basic floor plans, illuminated in white light, while coruscating Sherlock-like montages of exploding words are projected down onto the stage floor, which in turn is embedded with LED lights on the corners of the graph squares. The result is a visual riot, infused with music and dance-like choreography from the cast that cumulatively builds to a total expression of Christopher's mindset and at times abject terror of the situations he finds himself in.

One of the most popular novels of recent years, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time makes a frankly triumphant transition to the stage. Expertly played and staged, it joins the ranks of electrifying productions at the National Theatre. As an interpretation of an existing text, it's possibly one of the best direct adaptations we've seen, retaining everything that made the book a classic while imbuing the material with a slightly new spin that makes it feel completely fresh. Even if you've read the book, there's definitely something in the play that will truly surprise you, and it would be a crime for us to give anything else away. However, we will say it's worth staying in your seat past the curtain calls, as the play effectively brings the post-credits sting of numerous films to thoroughly enjoyable life...

Ultimately, if we had to grade it, it would be an A Grade. As that's the best result.

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The utterly lovely Una Stubbs strikes a pose for us at the National Theatre stage door.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is playing at the National Theatre's Cottesloe until October 27th 2012. Though officially sold out at present, further tickets are occasionally released and it's possible to obtain Day Return tickets if you visit the theatre on the day of performance. You can find further information on the National Theatre website.

National Theatre Live will broadcast the play worldwide on September 6 2012. Check their website for details on screenings in your country.