Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: tweaks give classic production new verve and power (Grand Opera House until Saturday 22 January)

It’s an extraordinary story. In book form, Mark Haddon’s tale captures the thinking and processing of fifteen-year-old boy with autism as he comes to terms with a disturbing canine death in his neighbourhood. Just one of a number of shocking revelations Christopher Boone uncovers while hunting for the culprit.

On one of the early World Book Days, I gave away about 40 copies of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, mostly to slightly bemused Belfast lunchtime shoppers and many fellow parents waiting to pick up a child outside a Lisburn primary school.

I was keen to catch the stage version when it visited the Grand Opera House in 2015, returning for another matinee performance when the tour in 2017. Last night, the latest UK tour of Simon Stephens’ adaptation began its out of London run on the recently renovated Great Victoria Street theatre stage.

New scenes and choreography in the second act really tighten the action, and it’s good to see that some of the terminology has been updated and that the cast deliberately includes neurodivergent actors.

David Breeds brings the teenager to life, flicking from bursts of exuberance to depressed rocking on the floor. The role must be exhausting to perform, requiring an incredible precision to match his actions to lists being recited and the timing of the interactive set with its unforgiving blocks of light. But Breeds succeeds in keeping the audience’s focus on Christopher.

While some of the previous physicality feels like it has been toned down – not sure if that’s an artistic decision or a Covid precaution – many of the iconic moments remain. The ensemble help Christopher fly around space and walk around the walls of the set. Some of the beautiful projections (which were properly aligned this year) now have added detail. The white noise and metallic shuddering still help the audience relate to the sensory oppression the young lad at the heart of the story is feeling.

Sadly, for the third time in a row, the pre-interval toy train failed to make it to its destination before being derailed … maybe next time Great Western Railways will deliver! The maths geek in me still appreciates the quick optional lesson about Pythagoras Theorem after the curtain call.

The one beacon of calm patience in Christopher’s life is teacher Siobhan, played with a lot of empathy and concern in this run by Rebecca Root. His classroom mentor sets clear boundaries and takes no nonsense, but still has the vision of helping her pupil explore his rather disturbing yet somewhat maturing experiences through the medium of a play. It’s a reminder that the many overlooked and underappreciated Siobhans in our education system should be celebrated and properly remunerated for their investment in young lives.

What struck me about this production is just how weary his parents are. Ed and Judy (played by Tom Peters and Kate Kordel) have made some poor decisions and have done some terrible things. Yet Peters, in particular, demonstrates the constant pressure, the sense of frazzlement, and the emotional toll of constantly being at his wits end. I’ve some experience of that, and it’s deeply upsetting though not unrealistic to watch on stage.

Equally distressing is the final scene’s admission that society hesitates to honestly answer Christopher’s question about his future potential.

Long-running theatre shows often resonate with events happening years after they were devised. One parental plea from Ed to his son felt strangely contemporary given the current machinations in Downing Street!

“I want you to know you can trust me. It’s bloody hard telling the truth all the time.”

I was also struck by the kindness of strangers. Some people Christopher encounters on his journey ‘get’ him immediately. Others take a few moments to realise that adapting their own behaviour may be a good idea. Only one or two remain downright rude.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time continues its run at the Grand Opera House until Saturday 22 January. From past experience, I recommend sitting up in the Grand Circle or Upper Circle – or even way up in the Gods – to get the full impact of the projection and the set. It’s one of the best stage adaptations of a book and the tweaks to the production have given it even more power and verve.

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