Richard Turner: My take on the play Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Posted on April 14, 2016

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Last Saturday I finally got to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time play in the West End. I say ‘finally’ because I have wanted to see it ever since I first read Mark Haddon’s book a few years ago and loved it.

I was actually due to see the play a while ago in the West End but it was shortly after the roof collapsed in the theatre, so I’ve waited until now to see a captioned performance of it by STAGETEXT at a different theatre, the Gielgud Theatre.

Because the book is written in the first person from the point of view of Christopher, the main character, I did wonder how they would be able to convey on-stage the unique way he sees the world, and whether it would work or not.

We are led to believe that Christopher has Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism, so because he is telling us the story, we see things through his eyes and we are introduced to his magical, brilliant, but altogether confused, mind.

Christopher is a fifteen-year-old boy, who is brilliant at maths and needs everything to be logical and organised to be able to be calm and focused. When they’re not, which is quite often the case, he becomes overwhelmed and terrified, unable to function in a noisy, chaotic world, which is full of things and strange behaviour by other people, which he can’t make sense of.

The way that this was done on-stage was actually very clever. Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher from his special needs school, narrated his story from the book that he had written, at the same time as the actual acting of his story was taking place. It worked well and it was really convincing.

Apart from being a good story, which was very well acted, the other brilliant thing about this production was the stage set. My wife, friend and I had excellent seats in the Dress Circle, facing right onto the stage, with the two STAGETEXT caption units perfectly placed at eye level to either side of us, so I could follow the dialogue really well.

The stage was designed like a giant geometric grid. At various points throughout the action, it would light up with bright colours, flash lots of numbers up or project different sets such as Paddington Station or London streets.

Watching the stage sets change, sometimes with walls closing in, opening up or escalators suddenly appearing in the tube station, was like walking into a magical, fantasy world as Christopher’s almost psychedelic imagination is unleashed upon us.

I thought the actor, who played Christopher, Kaffe Keating, was very convincing. I read an article in the programme afterwards by the author of the original book, Mark Haddon, which I thought was really insightful.

He talked about how Christopher describes himself as someone who has ‘Behavioural Problems’ because that is the term medical professionals have used to describe him.

He says that labels like that tell us very little about the person who has been labeled and a lot about the people doing the labeling. In other words, often well-intentioned people are searching for the correct PC term to use to label a disabled person, instead of treating that person like an individual and trying to find out what they are like by just talking to them and getting to know them.

Disabled people are all different and unique, just like any other group in society, so if someone asks whether Christopher is a correct representation of someone with autism, we shouldn’t really be asking that question.

After all, he says, we wouldn’t ask if a character, who is a cellist, lesbian or archbishop, for example, are representative of those types of people, so why should we assume that people with a certain disability are representative of all people with that disability either?

The irony is that Christopher is labelled as having ‘Behavioural Problems’ when the adults around him, such as his father and mother, are dysfunctional and cause Christopher a lot of pain and suffering with their own behaviour.

His father, for instance, played brilliantly by Nicholas Tennant, is unable to cope with Christopher or communicate well with him, so he goes from lying about his mother leaving him to try and save his feelings to lashing out at him from time to time through sheer frustration.

Similarly, his mother left him to run off with the neighbour to London, partly because she is unable to cope with Christopher and deal with her emotions.

Christopher can talk to people who aren’t close to him, though, such as his teacher Siobhan, as well as his kindly old neighbour Mrs Alexander. He also seems to have a special bond with animals, which he doesn’t have with people as he lacks empathy for them and can only see things in a simple, logical way. He obviously loved his neighbour’s dog Wellington, who we see has been brutally murdered at the beginning of the play. He also loves his pet rat Toby, who he insists on taking with him on his terrifying trip to London to try and find his mother.

I don’t want to give any more of the plot away for anyone who still hasn’t read the book or seen the play. Needless to say I thought this production was brilliant. It was very well acted and watching it was a real delight because the visuals, special effects and stage set were just incredible. It was definitely worth the wait. If you haven’t seen it yet, I’d definitely recommend it!

By Richard Turner. Richard blogs at his own blog, Good Vibrations and works in hearing aid support for Action on Hearing Loss

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