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When I sat down in the upper circle of the Lowry’s Lyric theatre to watch the play I always meant to see when I was in London but never did, the first thing I noticed was the set: One large cube, with the front missing so we could see in. Two big concerns straight away:
1) This could turn out to be one of those ‘experimental’ plays which are impossible to extract a story from. I remember Reckless Sleepers’ performance of Schrodinger in the Nuffield back in 2011, which was also set in a cube – no story or characters to shake a high-brow stick at. I didn’t want this brilliant book to lose its heart in the name of ‘contemporary arts’.
2) One step along from cube rooms and experimental theatre is ‘psychiatric hospital’. It screams (quite literally) of Antonin Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ which I’m sorry to say I know all too well from the days of A Level drama. A bigger concern than this being hard to watch is that I didn’t want the play to write the main character, Christopher, off as being a mental patient. He’s got Asperger’s syndrome, and the great joy of the book is getting inside his head and understanding how he sees the world. I was worried that looking in on him as a ‘mental patient’ would distance us from him far too much.
To address my first worry: Well, yes it is experimental. But in a way that is by no means at the expense of plot, but rather enhances it. You get a story that’s easy to follow from start to finish, and a visual spectacle thrown in as a bonus: The cube set serves as many locations, the use of smooth moving lights on all walls indicating where the scenes take place. The squares on the walls act as lockers from which the actors (an ensemble who sit on benches round the sides when they are not needed) can retrieve key props. Envelopes fall from the ceiling, Harry Potter style. Christopher builds a train track on the floor to distract himself towards the end of the first half – and then this track comes to life like the rest of the set and points to what we should expect of the story after the interval.
While the cube can be used as any location in the real world, a lot of the time it also acts as a space to explore Christopher’s mindscape. This might sound a bit eccentric written down, but the reality is it really lets us get inside his head as you might only think possible with a book. His thoughts (which often consist of numbers) flash on all the walls. He draws all around him in chalk when trying to approach things logically. His claustrophobia from a clandestine trip to London is shown through psychedelic sound and lighting which merges into a fantastic representation of the London Underground (one particular intense scene on the Subway is brought to life even more than the book managed to).
Curious Incident plays around just enough with what is acceptable to do in a theatre production – it never pushes so far through the fourth wall that it’s in our faces, but winks at us enough so we can’t help but smile: An ‘epic theatre’ style is sometimes employed where the ensemble are used explicitly as actors to help Christopher recount certain scenes, and humour comes from the way in which they fight the boundaries of the fictional world (e.g. trying to consume the edible props when the others aren’t looking). A key character is introduced before they actually become part of the story, interacting with Christopher so that we know who they are already when they join the narrative. Curious Incident becomes more metatheatrical as it progresses – it turns out this play is all a play performed by Christopher about a book he wrote, the same book that the book on which the play is based is presented as. (Sounds very complicated, but it only makes your head ache when you think too hard about it, or eat your ice cream too fast during the interval.) His teacher even suggests he explain his favourite maths problem after the play finishes then only the people who are interested can hang around – pretend you’re waiting in the credits of a Marvel movie, because he really does reappear after the curtain call. It’s nice to see the set in action one last time as he uses its full capabilities to explain Pythagoras, and tells us the spec of the cube as he does.
And my second worry? Well, I guess there could be an interpretation that this is all set inside a psychiatric ward. There’s a few scenes where Christopher has a panic attack and curls up in the centre of the room. Geraldine Alexander plays the narrator of the book, Christopher’s teacher and his conscience all at once, whilst wearing white… And when he’s in the scary unknown world of London, he gets dragged around a bit by the other actors. But it’s just an interpretation. What’s important is that the play allows us to see the world through Christopher’s eyes to a similar degree that Haddon’s book did. Chris Ashby (you might get Joshua Jenkins, but I’m sure he’ll be just as good as the rest of the cast) plays Christopher as a likeable, funny, interesting teenager who makes it impossible for us not to become invested in his story – we’re not leering through the glass at a crazy boy who can’t separate fantasy from reality, but very much there with him on every step of his journey of discovery and self-belief.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time ticks all the boxes to prove that ‘experimental’ performances can enhance a story: Surrealism, naturalism, physical theatre, exquisite sound and lighting, mime… this is a thorough celebration of what can be achieved in contemporary theatre. And if that doesn’t convince you to go, they get a (real) cute dog on stage.
The production tour started at the Lowry in Salford and shall be travelling across the UK throughout the year. Tickets can be purchased via their website.