Deeply unsettling and deeply funny, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is an emotional whirlwind of a play that opens its audiences eyes to the world it inhabits by channelling it through someone who sees things differently. It alerts us to the things we take for granted, the things that we ignore, and the things that we often, rather foolishly, obsess over.
Joshua Jenkins has real star quality as the remarkably resilient Christopher, both a comfort and a distress to his emotionally fragile father, played with painful and touching integrity by Stuart Laing. Elsewhere, Clare Perkins is hilarious as the grumpy head of Christopher’s special school, while Geraldine Alexander is likeable and engaging as his teacher-come-narrator, Siobhan. Siobhan is reliable, open and honest, a port in the storm of Christopher’s life. She seems to understand him more than most, perhaps mainly because she listens and tries. She is the one person who permits Christopher to tell his own story in a world where everyone else typically controls the plot and decides how best to direct him – although she is wrong about the maths problem.
Mark Haddon writes in the programme that he regrets that the term “Asperger Syndrome” appeared on the original book cover. In a world where diagnoses are all too often seen as catch-all explanations, such terms can limit and close-down our understanding as much as they expand it, and it is becoming more important than ever that we recapture a sense of people’s individuality. The play does not name Christopher’s condition, and its greatest achievement is to put its audience inside Christopher’s head through clever staging, lighting and structure, as much as through any feat of acting. Masterfully directed, it allows us to feel the world with him: overwhelmed by the glaring sensory overload of London; in awe of the intricate wonders of the universe and how small they make our human problems seem; angry at the deceit of his loved ones; and instinctively enamoured of the tiny puppy he eventually receives from his father.
Most of all, we enjoy the hunt: we want Christopher to succeed and find his answers. We might spot the solution before he does, but in what detective story is that not true? Half the fun of Sherlock Holmes or similar fiction is the gratification derived from discovering the answer before the supposedly ingenious detective gets it. Of course, it is always easier to understand a problem that is not your own. In Christopher’s situation, caught up in a web of lies, confusion and complex sexual and emotional politics, how many of us would have been able to see the wood for the trees? Or even allowed ourselves to?
This is, after all, as much a story about self-deception as it is about deceiving others: Christopher’s mother convinces herself that her family would be better off without her, his father that Christopher is better off not knowing what has happened to her. These are only falsehoods in the same sense that Christopher understands plays and metaphors as lies: just because they are not facts, doesn’t mean that they are not, in some sense, true. In the programme, Haddon suggests that Curious might really be more about us than it is about Christopher. Here’s another contention: Curious, like many (arguably all) good stories is more about storytelling than anything. How do people write the world? What do they see? What do they miss? How do we narrate our lives? Curious allows us to understand the nuanced and varied perspectives of all its different characters, despite the fact that it is this very nuance and difference that Christopher struggles most with. The stories his mother and father and all the other people around him tell serve the same function for them as mathematical equations do for Christopher: they are a reassurance, a means of imposing a kind of order and logic on a bewilderingly chaotic universe. Changes to these stories frighten them, as much as change unnerves Christopher, which is precisely why his father feels the need to suppress narratives written by Christopher and his mother that conflict with his own.
The structure of Curious on stage reflects this, with Siobhan acting as the placid voice of reason as she reads from Christopher’s book and offers him encouragement. As a result, the ending – or rather, the lack of one – becomes even more poignant. Christopher’s story is left incomplete. He closes the play celebrating his successes so far and believing that they mean that he can now do anything. To his mind, the narrative of his future life is already written, and all that remains is to turn the pages and read it. His teacher, on the other hand, doesn’t seem so sure. Whatever kind of calm Christopher has found for the time being, in five, ten, twenty years, like any of us, he will be a different person, in a different story.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is showing at the Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 6th June. To book tickets, visit the Birmingham Hippodrome website or call the box office on 0844 338 5000.