I came across The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time for the first time in book form, when I was very young and blissfully unaware of my diagnosis. To me it was a just a good story. But the lead character (Christopher’s) quirky behaviour and unusual thinking meant a lot more to my parents, as they knew I had Asperger’s Syndrome. When I revisited the book as an adult, it revealed a great deal about autism and our attitudes towards it as a society. At times, it felt more like Christopher was a caricature of Asperger’s than the real thing. There were many funny, quirky moments in the stage version. However, I couldn’t help feeling a little sad that the audience were laughing at moments when the character was highly distressed and his ‘quirky’ behaviour the only way he could express that distress.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is by Mark Haddon. Its protagonist, Christopher, is a teenage boy with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome who, upon attempting to discover who killed his neighbour’s dog, finds out some much darker truths about his own family. This plot means the story is not disability focused, and the emphasis is on what Christopher can do rather than what he can’t. The stage adaptation follows the book quite closely. It really brings to life the character of Christopher, highlighting his behavioural and sensory issues and granting the audience access to his rich inner world. Adapted by Simon Steven and directed by Marianne Elliot, the play is funny, heart breaking and hopeful.
I saw The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time at the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford in April. As I write, its’ run there is almost finished, but you can still catch it at the Edinburgh Festival and lots of other British locations. I have mixed feelings about the book, as I feel the socially awkward maths genius that Haddon portrays is yet another autism stereotype. Also, he has not quite grasped the subtleties of Asperger’s Syndrome. Children with that diagnosis often attend mainstream rather than special schools, and in real life someone with Christopher’s rigid thinking and high support needs would probably be much further along the spectrum. Despite this, I adored the stage adaptation.
The actors were fantastic all round, especially Luke Trenaway, who played Christopher. He visited special schools in preparation for his role, which meant the mannerisms Trenaway adopted (such as stimming, flapping and avoiding eye contact) were typical of someone with autism and presented in a subtle yet detailed manner that made his performance more believable. At times the cast used complex choreography involving several lifts to portray Christopher’s disorientation as he tries to navigate crowded spaces. Although this sometimes broke the illusion, it was interesting to watch and an effective portrayal of his distress.
The set was minimal, yet beautiful. The walls behind the stage were covered with an LED screen, which showed a square grid like the inside of a Maths exercise book, reminding the audience of Christopher’s obsession with doing Maths A Level. Some squares of the grid opened up to form cupboards and compartments. For me, this conveyed the act of storing and receiving information inside the brain. The screens also worked as a chalk board and displayed advertisements as needed. The rest of the set consisted of a detailed train track, model train and train station. Several square blocks were moved around by the performers and acted as chairs and tables. This approach meant scene changes were fast and fluid, and the location of the characters could change from outside to inside easily. Although elaborate, the LED screens did not distract me from the performance of the actors.
Bright strobe lighting and loud, repetitive music/other sounds were used to portray Christopher’s experiences of sensory overload. This technique was very effective, bringing a multi-sensory aspect to the performance and providing neurotypical audience members with some insight into the harrowing experience that is sensory overload. However, it did concern me. A play with an autistic protagonist is bound to attract some autistic audience members, and such theatrical techniques are NOT autism friendly. There were many moments in the play (particularly the train station scene) where the use of sound and lighting brought me to the brink of a crisis. I stayed because it was such a wonderful performance. However, it concerns me greatly that there was no warning on the shows posters or leaflets about the use of strobe lighting. Had someone with epilepsy been in the audience, it could have been fatal.
I am glad that sound and lighting was used to portray sensory overload in such an effective manner. Several of my family members were in the audience, and I hope such a jarring experience will cause them to be more sympathetic next time I complain about loud noise and bright lights. However, there should have been a written warning on the shows leaflets and posters, and a verbal warning at the start of the performance. Sadly, I’d advise people with epilepsy to avoid the show. Autistic audience members should bring ear defenders and sunglasses to the performance if you consider yourself to be over-sensitive to sound and light. Don’t miss out on such a wonderful performance; just make sure you’re prepared for the potential of sensory overload!
All that aside, it was a fantastic performance and the book translated to theatre much more smoothly than I had expected. It is very rare to find a performance that transports you so deeply into the inner world of the protagonist, but The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night Time did just that. You don’t need to have a background or interest in autism to enjoy the show. You just need to be a lover of theatre.