Based on Mark Haddon’s book, Simon Stephen’s play of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time has been a huge hit. There are productions currently on Broadway and touring the UK as well as the West End production at the Gielgud theatre. This London version has just had a new cast, with Sion Daniel Young excellent as Christopher, the young man at the centre of the drama. Throughout the play the rest of the ensemble sit around the side of the stage, coming forward into the action when needed. They include Rebecca Lacey as his caring teacher Siobhan and Nicholas Tennant as his struggling father.
The play purports to be the dramatisation of a notebook Christopher has been keeping about his life. It opens with him finding a dead dog, an event which drives the first act. He decides to do some detecting and investigate Who murdered Wellington? The play’s title alerts fans of Conan Doyle that Sherlock is being referenced, but peculiar though the results of the investigation are, they do not include any amazing feats of deduction worthy of the master detective.
Christopher has Asperger’s syndrome. Young’s portrayal of this condition through facial expressions, mannerisms and tics is superb. In the play the Asperger’s make him good at maths and bad with people – though the main effect we are shown again and again is that he takes everything literally. When asked to sit down with the colloquial phrase park yourself, he starts reversing, pretending to steer and making beeping noises. Is this an accurate portrayal of the condition or just put in for laughs? Much of the humour comes from the character’s inability to understand metaphors (or ‘lies’ as he prefers to call them) and it sometimes becomes close to laughing at his behaviour and misunderstanding.
Whilst the unpleasant truth about the dog’s death is the focus of the over-long first half, the second half leads into different territory. Realising his father has been lying to him, Christopher moves to London to live with his mother and her new partner. The fish-out-of-water humour increases as Christopher has to deal with the tube (the what?), accents and other aspects of big-city life.
Bunny Christie’s design is very good. What appears to be a spare, graph-papery square box moves and lights up, becoming at one point a disconcertingly high escalator. Video design is by Finn Ross who has created strong projections that bring the scenery to life, particularly successfully when the stage becomes a moving train. The cast has worked with movement directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett from Frantic Assembly and produce some balletic off-the-ground physical movement.
There are issues. The plot requires that a most unlikely lie has lain undiscovered, whilst the script is fully of jarring blasphemies. Christopher’s condition gives the hero flaws rarely seen on stage, but they are the sort of heart-warming flaws an audience can enjoy without having to contemplate any personal application.
Though the play’s USP is given by the Asperger’s, once the look-he-mistook-this-for-that amusement has been discounted The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is a drama about broken families and the effect of dishonesty on relationships – even if the solution provided on stage is distinctly superficial.