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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Richard Watts

A valiant attempt to adapt an unfilmable novel for the stage, though not always successful and occasionally actively frustrating.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Joshua Jenkins as Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

A celebration of stagecraft as much as an exercise in empathy, the National Theatre’s touring production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time frustrates and delights in equal measure.

In adapting Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel of the same name, playwright Simon Stephens has faced a number of challenges, of which the greatest is bringing to life the book’s narrative: the interior monologue of protagonist Christopher Boone – a neuro-diverse 15 year old who loves mathematics as much as he hates being touched.

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Stephens’ solution has been to use a narrator, in the form of Christopher’s special school teacher Siobhan (Julie Hale) who reads aloud from the book Christopher (Joshua Jenkins) is writing about his efforts to uncover the killer of a neighbour’s dog. At other times Christopher himself describes his actions to us. The cumulative effect of this narrative approach is to spell out the action in laboured detail, as if the playwright is in terror of leaving behind even a single, imperceptive audience member. Consequently there are moments where the action onstage is narrated as it unfolds, a strange doubling of events which ignores the ‘show don’t tell’ proscription familiar to all writers, and which this reviewer found more than a little irksome.  

Such heavy-handedness extends to sequences which convey Christopher’s heightened sensitivity to sound and new stimuli. Strobing lights and explosive sound flay our senses in a protracted sequence after interval which reminds us that sometimes, less really can be more.

At other times, however, the production delights. It manages to be moving without being cloying as Christopher unravels an intimate mystery sparked by his initial investigation, and when utilising props, lighting and digital effects with a modicum of restraint, is genuinely transporting. Its bells and whistles certainly impress – kudos to lighting designer Paule Constable and video designer Finn Ross – though all are upstaged by the simplicity of a wriggling puppy, a reminder of the dangers of working with animals and an uncomfortable acknowledgement that sometimes the simplest stagecraft can be the most effective.

As Christopher, Jenkins charms, though some of the other performances feel a touch exaggerated and similar – clearly a directorial choice by Marianne Elliott. Thankfully the supporting roles played by Emma Beattie and David Michaels are more nuanced and distinctive, with Beattie in particular bringing a hoarse, beleaguered affection to her character. Movement direction by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hogget is impeccable, and literally uplifting.

With less spectacle and more heart, this would be a truly great production. As it stands, it’s merely memorable.

3 ½ stars

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
Presented by Melbourne Theatre Company and Arts Centre Melbourne
11 January – 25 February 2018

 

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging and on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre. He is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

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