Friday 3 August 2012

National Theatre's Curious Incident, or, The Lies We Tell

Note: This is a review of the final preview on Wed 1st August. The press night took place yesterday, Thurs 2nd August.

I would have liked to take an audience straw poll after this show to find out what percentage had read the book, and then to discover how they found it. I have not read the book, so I was able to enjoy this show simply as a play and after a few moments of doubt at the beginning I was swept along.

On the face of it the narrative concerns the struggle of Christopher, who has Asberger's Syndrome, to solve a number of mysteries in his life – it starts out as the mystery of the death of his next door neighbour's dog but becomes about rather more than that. Most poignantly it's about the effect of having a child like that on a marriage, and about the lies we are capable of telling even, perhaps especially, to those we love when we are in pain. I won't give away any more than that because I don't want to spoil the story for anybody else who may see it not having read the book.

This story is brought to life by some superb acting. The central role of Christopher is played by Luke Treadaway, and I found him completely convincing. There's the striking mix of knowledgeable assurance in the areas about which he knows far more than the 'ordinary' people he encounters, but the production also brings out the overwhelming impact on him of new experiences like the, for most of us, simple business of train travel. His parents Ed and Judy are played by Paul Ritter and Nicola Walker. Both are very good but I would especially single out Ritter. The way in which his pain, desperation and guilt are gradully revealed is powerfully done. In the very first moments I was doubtful about Niahm Cusack's Siobhan – this is because it appears as if large chunks of the play are going to be narrated by her and something about her initial vocal tone grated for me -  but fortunately this is not the way the adaptation goes and Cusack's performance after that moment was spot on. Behind them is a six strong ensemble who perform multiple roles – all to a high standard.

The production is another triumph for director Marianne Elliott who has been at the helm of some of the National's best work in recent years. The major thing that struck me about this is her fluid sense of movement. Now obviously credit is also due here to Movement Directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett of Frantic Assembly, but something of the same fluidity has been present in others of Elliott's productions to which they did not contribute – most notably Saint Joan. The design by Bunny Christie, assisted by Paule Constable (Lighting), Finn Ross (video) and Ian Dickinson (sound) is likewise effective, video, lighting and model effects are all utilised but in the service of the story rather than against it as is so often the case. The Cottesloe weaved its customary intimate spell, and there are a couple of moments of real magical beauty to the staging.

The reactions of fellow audience members were interesting. In a number of places scattered laughter rippled out through the auditorium. This reminded me of some of the laughter at the dreadful vertically challenged DollsHouse at the Edinburgh International Festival some years ago – It didn't strike me that the remarks which Christopher periodically makes in consequence of his condition were funny. My much stronger reaction was one of unease – would the police really treat a boy like Christopher as they do in the first scene here? Would the school really be so difficult about allowing him to take the Maths A-Level? Are we, rushing about busily in London, really likely to treat someone in need so dismissively? I would like to answer no, but one fears that the human capacity to dismiss is a strong one. And finally there is the unanswered question with which the play ends. Christopher has just recounted an idea of how his future will unfold - “I can do this, can't I?” he demands repeatedly to be greeted only with silence. It's a telling comment on the number of promises made earlier in the play which have not been kept but it's also a question which challenges the audience – what is the right answer?

This is a powerful, moving play. Chalk it up as a third unmissable show for 2012.

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