There are few things worth travelling the length of the Jubilee Line for on a cold and wet rush-hour on a December night. Attending the first night of the 10th anniversary touring production of
This production feels more like a by-numbers recreation than a by-heart revival
Sadly, it turns out to also be one of those things that heighten the eagerness to do the return journey home.
Anyone who has had children of the appropriate school-age, will likely already know something about The Curious Incident. Mark Haddon's book – a life-changing voyage of discovery, written in the first-person by its teenage protagonist, Christopher Boone – was 2003’s Book of the Year. It came 19th in The Guardian’s 100 Best Books of the 21st Century.
Like any good book, it’s also had its fair share of dissenters. Bad language and negative religious views made it the fifty-first most banned or challenged book of the last decade, according to the ALA. (Interestingly, it sits between The Color Purple and The Holy Bible.) It has also drawn criticism for its depiction of someone living with Asperger’s or autism – Haddon has remained deliberately non-specific about Christopher’s disorder.
But there is no arguing the fact that the book has entertained and educated millions of children, parents – and childless adults – alike.
The National Theatre’s 2012 stage adaptation redefined the words stage adaptation. Simon Stephens’ script doesn't just turn novel into narrative, or description into dialogue. He retains the book’s sense of stream of consciousness by making Christopher's personal tutor, Siobhan, the narrator of the book Christopher is “writing”. It’s somewhat meta but is key to showing us our world through Christopher’s eyes.
Director Marianne Elliot – with designer Bunny Christie – contain this world in a box that walls the stage. Exploding with neon lighting and film projection, it magnifies even the smallest events to the scale of importance they have for Christopher. When he faces problems, it is the structure he uses as a coping mechanism, a place where he can draw in straight lines and count in prime numbers.
Thanks to collaboration with Frantic Assembly, the production has a physicality to it, rarely seen outside of dance pieces. The ensemble flow together as one to create stunning human tableaux of Christopher’s imagination and perception. They take him on journeys into his unknown; whether flying through Earth’s orbit or fighting through London’s Underground.
At the centre of the original show were heart-stopping performances by a cast including Luke Treadaway as Christopher, Niamh Cusack as Siobhan, and Nicola Walker and Paul Ritter as his acrimoniously separated parents, Judy and Ed.
Elliot’s production was adored by many. Including me.
This is all still relevant to the new touring production that kicks-off at the (oh-my-God-but-it’s-ugly) Troubadour Theatre in Wembley. Of course, it has a different cast. And language associated with neurodiversity and autism has been altered to reflect terms used today. But, on paper at least, this is the same production. The programme even lists Elliott, Christie, Frantic Assembly et al as the creative team.
Yet, it is quite a different experience. Perhaps seen with virginal eyes, without knowledge of previous productions, it may be just as enthralling as it was. Perhaps watching the show will leave you feeling similarly exhilarated.
I accept that I can’t unsee what I have seen. Nonetheless, I find it hard to believe that the reactions will be comparable.
An Adequate Assimilation
This production feels more like a by-numbers recreation than a by-heart revival. Like it has adhered to the specifics, the rules, the instructions taken from the minutes of the original rehearsal process. It feels blocked rather than created. I suspect the day-to-day involvement of the creative team still listed may have been minimal. I imagine that this was put together by the many Associates also named, in smaller type, below the originators.
“Putting something together” implies the following of a process. Something driven by logic, timings and to-do lists that can be ticked off. “Creating” is something less tenable. It evolves from fluidity, emotional investment, and an undefinable belief that something beautiful will be borne.
This is an adequate assimilation of the original. It lacks the spark and magic that make for truly exciting theatre.
In 2013, The Curious Incident took the Olivier’s for Best New Play, Best Director, Best Sound, Lighting and Design (and was nominated for Best Choreography). Treadaway and Walker were named Best Actor and Supporting Actress. This showering of awards was repeated on Broadway in 2015, with the same gongs given by the Critics Circle, the Drama Desk and the Tony’s.
Since then, the output of that original meeting of creative minds has continued to evolve. But as something – though equally laudable – rather different.
It has extensively toured the UK, the USA, and the world. There have been multiple touring versions performed for free at schools. In 2019, a new 90-minute version of the script was published, adapted with minimal technical requirements making it suitable for performances by schoolchildren in classrooms and assembly halls.
With this ever-growing audience came more responsibility. The play became part of discussions on autism and neurodiversity. This naturally evolved into the bigger topic of accessibility and diversity in entertainment.
In 2017, the US touring production cast Mickey Rowe as Christopher. Rowe was the first autistic actor to play the role. This casting directive has been repeated in subsequent US productions and now here. Playing Christopher on alternative nights are David Breeds and Connor Curran; the latter giving a perfectly acceptable performance on press night.
For this touring version, the positive representation goes further. The production is supported by Access All Areas, who “make award-winning, disruptive theatre by learning disabled and autistic artists.”
It means this is the first time some of the actors have performed on stage professionally. Others are old-hands – figuratively-speaking – whose own lived experiences and disabilities are clear enough for them to be assigned to the characters being played.
As an approach to casting, this is undoubtedly a positive step towards a more inclusive society. But with it, comes questions that remain unanswered.
Are we to pretend not to notice a character is – to use one example – deaf? It is never acknowledged on stage because it isn’t scripted. If we do, does that truly represent our society? Or should theatre represent an ideal society, in the hope that, over time, this will lead to a realised ideal?
More broadly, what are we to say about a performance we would see as sub-par in another context? Is it patronising to make concessions? Or cruel to not take this into account?
Avoiding the Truth
Being critical of performances that others love can always ruffle feathers. It comes with writing what I hope are honest and fair reviews. Causing real offense by inadvertently saying the wrong thing, or being taken in the wrong way, is never my intention.
This review does not include moments that ordinarily I would highlight. It ignores details I think are important when choosing which show you’re going to spend a few hundred quid taking the family to see.
I really don’t know the rules. I don’t like self-editing. But, to avoid any possible upset, that is exactly what I have done. I feel a little uncomfortable that the result is a review I can’t honestly say is my full, honest, and truthful opinion. I can’t shake the feeling that this renders my review pointless.
Perhaps over time, more openness will, in turn, lead to more openness. Until then, we may just have to watch our words.