Now touring around the country after a massively successful run on the West End, the National Theatre’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s award-winning novel about an autistic boy solving the mystery of a dead dog is so much more than an Olivier Award-winning trip to your favourite childhood book. Combining mesmerising physical theatre with an innovative digital box set, the only thing missing is a Hanz Zimmer soundtrack. On top of everything, Marianne Elliott has created one of the most important, insightful pieces of theatre, simultaneous entertaining and educating her audience. As well as being beautifully crafted, Simon Stephen’s meta-theatrical re-working of the novel makes you cry as Christopher struggles with unfamiliar situations and his mental health issues but then shifts gear to make you laugh at snappy humour.
After seeing the production at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre recently, I was struck by how the creative team have brought one of the biggest novels of my childhood to life as well as making mental health issues a topic of conversation to those who’ve witnessed its near-sell-out tour. Since its premier in 2012, it has been seen by millions of people across the world, carrying its strong message and its fantastic craftsmanship with it, making it perhaps the most important play of the 2010s, just as the novel was so important when it was released in 2003 and continues to be to this day.
Below are just 5 of the reasons why you have to see this show:
- Not once, even in the marketing of the play, is the word ‘Autism’ mentioned. It’s a device that reminds you how ignorant we can be to mental health issues whilst also reminding you that people need not be defined by their illnesses. Christopher’s Asperger’s-like mannerisms give the play its dynamic drive, acting not as a device but as the crux to the play, but the play is not about struggling – it’s about coping. In fact, not mentioning the mental health issue makes the play more powerful, reaching out to every single illness out there, carrying themes of being the carer and the sufferer of any illness.
- It reminds you just how able the ‘disabled’ can be, regardless of whatever incapacities an individual may have. Christopher lacks fundamental social skills, through his excellence in Mathematics (he completes an A-level in Mathematics at the age of 15) and his ambitions, prove him to be just as successful, if not more so, as anyone else. Curious Incident provides a fascinating look into the inner-workings of the mind, showing how a mental illness influences it, using metaphors galore (to Christopher’s dismay), with the most notable being that the stage is a metaphor for the mind. The encore scene, not often found in plays (dare I call it a post-credits scene?), is a fantastic example of this, as well as a clever way of achieving a standing ovation, which it deserves anyway.
- The play also shows some of the negatives of suffering from mental illness, none more so than the ignorance of others. Christopher, like many Asperger’s sufferers, struggles with strangers and unfamiliar situations. The play often presents his encounters with strangers, and shows how people can react to people with mental health, especially when they do not know about it. No one is really presented as a bad person for behaving as they do, but Christopher’s reactions, and him being a loveable protagonist, highlight just how these reactions affect sufferers. Not knowing which characters know about his illness – it’s not even clear if he or his parents know – makes the responses even more interesting. We see how the unawareness of Christopher’s implied condition affects both him and others, as strangers touch him and feel the repercussions and as he is confused by some of the more drastic reactions. What this does is add emphasis to…
- … the necessity and importance of anchors to someone with mental health issues. This is found in Siobhan, Christopher’s inner muse as well as school mentor. Without revealing any spoilers, Christopher only trusts three characters (and his rat, Toby) in the play: one of whom is Siobhan, as seen by how close he lets them get to him, otherwise lashing out against people who touch him. Some of the most touching moments are found in these interactions, in which Christopher reveals his true feelings. It’s a massive “high-five” to those carers out there who make life liveable for those with health issues of both a mental and physical nature.
- At the same time, the play is also very “carer-aware”. Frequent flashbacks throughout the play are cleverly presented and contrasted against the present day in order to show how Christopher’s illness puts pressure on his family, eventually leading to it falling apart. On top of this we often see Christopher’s dad lose his temper, particularly when he is unable to cope with Christopher’s episodes. It’s very rare for a play, film or book to show you both the sufferings of the sufferer as well as the carer.