Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a triumphant exercise in emotional imagination

Joshua Jenkins as Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Joshua Jenkins as Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Peter Ormerod reviews The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at The Hippodrome, Birmingham

A world of cold rectilinear rationality, apparently devoid of human empathy - who would want to live in such a place?

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this mesmerising play is that it explores its topic so tenderly and richly that you really don’t want to leave what seems at first like sterile, even hostile territory.

Based on Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time tells the story of Christopher, a teenager possessed of an extraordinary mind. Through his relationships with the world and those who people it, we see afresh our own lives and have our dulled senses opened to the noise and colour of our surroundings. In one sense, it’s a straightforward tale of a boy on what is popularly called ‘the autistic spectrum’ and his quest to discover who’s killed his pet, which leads to far darker secrets coming to light. But in its remarkable telling, it becomes a triumphant exercise in emotional imagination: Christopher’s outbursts and seizures appear a perfectly reasonable response to the chaos around him.

This National Theatre production deploys techniques and devices that, in lesser hands, would prove distracting. There’s a vast video screen, retina-bursting lights, ear-rattling sound effects and a sometimes brutal physicality to the acting. But it’s all in perfect proportion, all in the service of the story and its characters; and it is also frequently sublime, gentle, bewitching and beautiful.

Given its almost aggressively unnatural staging, one of its more striking aspects is its naturalism. The faultless cast, many of whom take on a number of roles without drawing attention to their skill, take to the vibrant and frequently funny script with an understatement rare on the stage. Joshua Jenkins will rightly attract plaudits for his portrayal of Christopher as a boy in whose company one would gladly spend many an hour, but Geraldine Alexander, a Leamingtonian, is an ideal foil, with an almost steely warmth.

It is quite a feat for a production of such ambition to be so cohesive and coherent. It’s compassionate but never condescending, bold but never brash, moving but never mawkish. It deserves to be recognised as a masterpiece of contemporary theatre.

* The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome until June 6. Call 0844 338 5000 or visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com