Because its heart is simple but pure, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is both boring and moving.
Based on Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel, Simon Stephens’s play follows Christopher, a 15-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, as he tries to figure out who killed Wellington, his neighbour’s standard poodle, with a pitchfork. Christopher’s dad, Ed, who is raising his son on his own, tries to discourage him, but Christopher persists and his sleuthing leads him to taking a solo journey by train from Swindon to London, which is a heroic quest for somebody so prone to sensory overload.
The relationship between Ed and Christopher is complicated. Ed loves his challenging boy furiously—sometimes too furiously: at one point, he smacks him in the face. And there are other transgressions. The scene in which Ed begs Christopher to trust him again is heartbreaking. Much of the rest of the story is disappointingly straightforward, however; you can see its conclusions coming from light years away.
Haddon’s novel compensates for its narrative simplicity by immersing the reader in Christopher’s consciousness. Christopher narrates the whole book and there’s plenty of tension and humour in the fact that, as a reader, you’re aware of the gap between what’s happening and what Christopher is able to perceive.
But, in the theatre, rather then being inside Christopher’s head, we’re looking at him from the outside so there’s less of a sense of bathing in his consciousness. In the play, Stephens has Christopher share the narration with his teacher Siobhan, which doesn’t help. And an added convention, in which Siobhan convinces Christopher to write a play about his experiences, feels half-baked.
Still, it seems that successful productions of the stage play can reintroduce the crucial sense of immersion using design and staging. The Royal National Theatre’s production of Curious Incident won armloads of Oliviers and Tonys: its set was a claustrophobic cube full of grids that got overloaded with a riot of information. (Check out thisYouTube video to get a sense of that mounting.)
The Arts Club’s staging of Curious Incident is less compelling, so the holes in the story stay starkly apparent. Rather than blowing our minds with video projections and lighting cues, director Ashlie Corcoran and her team favour a simpler story-theatre approach. Using their bodies, actors create settings—a portal in a spacecraft for instance—and, as a kind of chorus, they echo some of Christopher’s physical reactions. Sensorily, it’s not enough: having Christopher walk through a group of actors who are doing simple choreography does little to evoke how terrifying getting through a tube station in London must be for him.
Other production elements feel naïve, too, including the overly broad portraits of some of the minor characters—including a couple of policemen, and a church minister.
Drew Facey’s set, with its soaring arcs and suspended discs, supports the expansive side of Christopher’s consciousness, the side that loves to gaze at the stars, but it’s less successful in representing the compulsive orderliness of Christopher’s brain or its vulnerability to stimuli.
And yet, as I said, the show’s heart is pure. There are a couple of exquisite performances in this production and there are impactful moments of staging.
Playing Christopher, Daniel Doheny is scrupulously thorough. You can always see Doheny’s Christopher working things out, industriously processing them on a screen that seems to be located just behind his eyes. All of the awkwardness is there, too—in the way Christopher screws up his face, summoning all of his effort, when he’s asked to look somebody in the eye, for instance.
I also loved Todd Thomson’s Ed. Ed is, arguably, the most interesting character in the play and Thomson fearlessly inhabits Ed’s devotion to Christopher, his rage, and his regret. Tenderness shapes Thomson’s characterization and the fact that this is a portrait of a gruff, working-class guy makes the tenderness particularly touching.
Sometimes, the movement passages really pay off. One of the final images—which I won’t give away—is transcendent. So, even though my investment came and went while I was watching the Arts Club’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I left the theatre feeling grateful for the inclusive, optimistic heart of the story and for the successes in this telling.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME By Simon Stephens. Adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon. Directed by Ashlie Corcoran. An Arts Club production at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Saturday, September 15. Continues until October 7.
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