Emma  Beattie as mother Judy and Scott Reid as Christopher with the stage filling video wall at the rear.

Pictures: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Birmingham Hippodrome


There are rare productions that come along and challenge our perception of theatre; West Side Story, for example, changed the way we think of musicals, the National Theatre’s War Horse transported puppets from niche and children’ theatre to mainstream drama – life-size and lifelike.

The Curious Incident, another National Theatre production and now on its second tour, joins that band of theatrical landmarks. We are surrounded by technology, LED lights and computers have done wonders for stage lighting, for example, but here is a production which embraces technology as a tool and shows its dramatic possibilities.

Based on Mark Haddon’s multi-award-winning novel of 2003, The Curious Incident opens with Christopher John Francis Boone, aged 15 years two months and three days, discovering the body of a neighbour’s dog, Wellington, lying on the lawn speared by a garden folk.

Christopher has an autism spectrum condition and lives with his father in Swindon. His mother died of a heart attack two years ago, he tells us as that is what he was told, and he never tells a lie - he can't. It is the way his mind works.

Among other other quirks, he hates being touched, so when the dog’s owner, Mrs Shears (Eliza Collings in one of several roles she plays) calls the police and a policeman tries to take hold of Christopher . . . he lashes out in panic, anger, fear – whatever emotion has been triggered is in his mind. The result is that he is arrested.

Released with a caution Christopher decides that he will turn detective to find the murderer of Wellington, despite being warned to stay out of other people’s business by his father, Ed, played sympathetically by David Michaels, a man struggling hard as a single parent trying to bring up a boy who is far from easy to live with.

The “project” brings Christopher into contact with people he has never met even though they are in the same street, asking them if they knew who killed Wellington, a challenge in itself as he does not cope well with strangers. His investigation brings him to Mrs Alexandra, played by Debra Michaels, who gently tells him his mother had an affair with Mr Shears, and then, back home, he discovers his mother is not only alive but living in London, so after an incident with his father, off he sets for London, with pet rat Toby, alone and unprepared for the world outside his sheltered cocoon.

Here the technology comes into its own and the audience is bombarded with the confusion, crowds, hostility and cacophony of sound faced by Christopher, whose only solo journeys have been to his special school.


David Michaels as dad Ed with Christopher 

His tale is narrated by his teacher Siobhan, played by Lucianne McEvoy, who is helping him turn is project into a book, a murder mystery, and then into a play, the one we are actually watching. It is gentle, compassionate performance, coaxing, encouraging and softly showing Christopher the ways of the world.

Along the way we meet Emma Beattie as his mother Judy who left home to live with Mr Shears, a man unsympathetic to Christopher, played by Oliver Boot, among all the other parts he takes on.

Judy tries to explain why she left, the strain of bringing up their son perhaps more than the marriage could bear, while Christopher’s arrival in London causes another relationship break up as she returns to Swindon with her son.

We end with a sort of stability, a sort of relationship which Christopher, now shared between separated parents, can understand, even if the final scene is stolen by Sandy, an adorable Labrador puppy, given to him as a present by his father. Never work with children or animals remember . . .

It sounds a heavy psychological drama, but that could not be further from the truth; it is a play filled with good humour and is as much a celebration of life as it is an understanding of Christopher and autism.

Haddon admits to doing little research into autism or Asperger’s, and in a 2003 American radio interview said that he had done more research about Swindon Station and the London Underground, locations in the novel, that into the condition.

“I gave him kind of nine or 10 rules that he would live his life by, and then I didn't read any more about Asperger's because I think there is no typical person who has Asperger's syndrome, and they're as large and diverse a group of people as any other group in society.”.

Yet he created a character that experts agree is an accurate portrayal of the condition and in the book and Simon Stephens’ subsequent 2012 play Christopher is neither an object of pity or of fun, he is Christopher and his autism is just part of the story.

It is a quite remarkable performance by Scott Reid, the 23-year-ol Glasgow actor, perhaps best known as Methadone Mick in BBC One’s Still Game, in a part that is both physically demanding and emotionally draining.

Christopher is never still except when his senses are overloaded and he shuts down in foetal silence and we have to watch the play through his eyes in a world that only makes sense so him, and when it doesn’t make sense his fists clench, or he grabs his trousers, rocks moans and heads towards meltdown.

To Reid’s credit we start to see his world through his eyes, discovering what is logical to us does not work in a mind where logic is pure with no imagination or idioms allowed – what does someone being “the apple of his eye” mean after all?

And the play, to some extent is about communication. No one really knows what goes on in the mind of someone within the broad range of autism, they are wired differently and although we can learn much of their likes and dislikes we can never know everything. We discover for instance Christopher’s favourite colour is red but he hates yellow and brown.

We learn enough to communicate, much as we do with a foreign language we learned at school when on holiday in that we can understand and make ourselves understood, but are never  really fluent or at ease.

And around the murder mystery is the day to day life of ordinary people provided by a hardworking ensemble who take on every other role from policemen to booking clerks, neighbours to commuters,  a whole world alien to Christopher.

The stage is four sides of a cube with roof and front wall missing with LEDs  set in the floor and each wall, stark white lighting, video projection of prime numbers, random words, trains, tubes and at times chaos, hidden doors and cupboards, a stage full of lights, sounds (Adrian Sutton) and movement all designed by Bunny Christie  with lighting from Paule Constable and video from Finn Ross.

The set, incidentally contains five tons of steel and eight projectors all moved from venue to venue in four artics.

I first saw Curious Incident on its last tour two years ago when it won that year’s Behind The Arras best whow award and it is still as powerful, innovative and simply human as it was then. Brilliant theatre. Directed by Marianne Elliot it runs to 08-07-17

Roger Clarke

Those who listen will know that when the curtain calls are over and the house lights go on the show is not yet over so don't rush for the exits. You have been warned.


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