Friday, October 16, 2015

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (Grand Opera House until Sat 17 Oct) #BelFest

Shows celebrating mathematics should be a mandatory part of every year’s Belfast Festival programme. It can’t all be left to the NI Science Festival. And a play featuring a dog in the Grand Opera House should be another compulsory performance in the running order.*

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time ticks all those boxes this year with a (sold out run) for Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s superb novel.
“I’m going to find out who killed Wellington.”

Starting with Mrs Shears’ (dead) dog in the middle of the floor with a garden fork sticking out of it, we learn about 15 year old Christopher’s difference and his literalness combined with outright honesty that get him into trouble. The relationship with Siobhan – his mentor in school who narrates from Christopher’s record of his investigation into the canine death – is the calmest and most patient of the adults in his life. It’s a shame that Mrs Alexander, an older neighbour living in No 41, doesn’t get more scenes in which to demonstrate her problem-solving attitude (let’s have tea outside if you won’t come in).

Much imagery from the book is transferred straight into the play. Through the use of sound, images, movement and lighting the audience experience the overwhelming multisensory input that confuses Christopher, slows him down and causes extreme anxiety. With black and white predominantly used throughout the performance, the appearance of any strong colour is incredibly significant and usually a sign of heightened fear or tension.

There’s a darkness in some of the scenes after the interval that is carefully balanced with moments of comedy.

So many promises made to Christopher by adults are broken. It is heart-breaking. Yet by the end of the play, we see the birth of aspiration in a boy who is coming of age, and the gift of achievement and well deserved recognition (even if he’s nonplussed by his own success!).

As someone who went to the theatre as a child and spent most of the time looking at the lights, the look of the show is extraordinary. Spotlights normally throw rounded shapes onto a stage. The Curious Incident pulls off crisp right angled corners that are perfectly positioned on the black box graph-paper stage through the use of projectors pointing down from the roof that are aligned perfectly with the set.

Projectors are overused in modern theatre. There’s barely a play staged in Belfast that doesn’t have one or more projectors bouncing imagery off the scenery to augment the set. But Curious Incident gets a wild card and shows what can be achieved with a relatively simple-looking boxed in set and the mind of a Christopher. The white outline of rooms, houses and even railway carriages are created in an instant and then wiped away.

The main props are simple white boxes that are placed very precisely on the stage. (One box was left at a jaunty angle for a while that ruined the aesthetic for anyone in the audience with OCD tendencies!)

One small niggle: any maths student will tell you the teacher docks marks if you don't draw the axes on top of the thick major gridlines on the graph paper. Maths savant Christopher would know that too. Somehow the set designer didn’t manage to follow that rule and has the axes plotted midway through the squares.

The view from the back row up in the ‘gods’ in the Grand Opera House was spectacular and while I couldn’t make out the facial expressions of any of the cast, I had a great overview of the choreography. The downsides of the cheap seats were the sweetie paper fissling of hundreds of people in the theatre sitting between me and the unamplified voices on the stage. So when the schoolchild in front continued to slurp her straw at the bottom of the long ago emptied bottle of juice it was sorely tempting to drop my ice cream tub on top of her and say “oops”.

The breaking of the fourth wall to tell the audience that we were watching a play written by Christopher – a play within a play – jarred with the immersive theatre up to that point. However, the postponed mathematical explanation was worth the wait and as someone who was a bit of a maths geek and spent many an hour reading mathematical dictionaries as a child, it was quite emotional to hear Christopher so clearly and completely lecturing the departing audience about a topic close to his heart.

There’s just one seat left in the Circle [E19] for Saturday evening’s performance in the Grand Opera House. The touring version of Curious Incident is nearly at the end of its run. If you have the chance to see the play in London or New York, grasp the opportunity. It’s a fresh and novel staging whose technically brilliance is not let down by the quality of the 14 energetic cast members.

*On-stage peeing – or pretend peeing – is also a new meme for Belfast theatre, with the next performance expected during Mydidae later in the Belfast Festival.

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