This play is an adaptation of the 2003 novel by Mark Haddon (which won the Whitbread Prize), and is the story of a 15 year old boy Christopher Boone who one night discovers a dead dog in his neighbour's garden. The dog is very obviously dead as there is a garden fork stuck very deeply into its side. Initially as the dog's owner Mrs Shears comes out into the garden, Christopher gets the blame and a policeman arrives. In a slight scuffle, the policeman is hit by Christopher and he is taken to the local police station until his father Ed arrives. Christopher likes reading Sherlock Holmes stories and there is a mystery of a dead dog here that he must now solve.
It is at this point that I have to introduce the fact that Christopher has a variant of Autism called Asperger Syndrome and this makes the world that Christopher lives in slightly different at times to what many other people perceive as normal.
Christopher lives in Swindon and attends a special needs school. When his teacher Siobhan gets told of what happened, she suggests that Christopher keep a journal of his investigations. This Christopher decides to do. There are now two very important things for him to concentrate on - finding the killer of the dog and also sitting his A Level maths exam very soon. Christopher is very good with numbers and with some persuasion to the school from his father, special arrangements have been made to allow him to sit the exam.
The book (which I have recently read) is written from the viewpoint of Christopher himself and is based on the author's own experiences of working in an Adult Training centre in the early 1980s. The book gives us an insignt into the feelings of Christopher as his investigation into the events lead him to discover events that change his very ordered life. Although chaotic to an outsider, the world of Christopher is very logical and very precise. He loves numbers - particularly prime numbers (the book chapters are all primes) and maths. He pays a lot of attention to detail around him and needs very clear directions to many everyday things. There is no use telling Christopher that you will see him soon for example. You must give him a precise time frame and he will keep an eye on his watch and expect your return at that precise time. Metaphors such as "keep an eye on his watch" are a puzzle to him too. He simply does not understand them. With a book like this that was so much about the thought processes of the central character, I was interested to see tonight how that was transferred to a stage. How do you convey thought to an audience?
The solution to this turned out to be very effective. The stage is basically three screens of equal sized squares that initially are black outlining time and space. In the centre of the stage is our dead dog (don't worry, they assure us that this is not a real dog and no dogs were harmed in the performance). There are no fixed set pieces (apart from a large train set that Christopher slowly builds in the first half). Most settings are imaginary or displayed on the screens, and what few props are cleverly taken from a series of squares boxes that form part of the set screens. Some clever graphics as we progress along the story let us into the workings of Christopher's mind.
Much of the first half is taken up with the relationship between Christopher and his father (who does not want him to investigate the dead dog issue). Christopher has been told by his father that his mother died a few years earlier of a heart problem. We are however introduced to his mother in Act 1 via some memories and letters.
This is a story on many levels. At its heart we have Christopher (played tonight by Joshua Jenkins) giving us an insignt into how his world operates. He hates for example being touched by anyone, hates talking to strangers, and has an intense dislike of the colours yellow and brown. Red and metallic colours are good though. Joshua Jenkins does an outstanding job of gently giving to the audience a little taste of just what someone with Asperger Syndrome might go through on a daily basis as they try to put the world around them into some order. Joshua is always the focal point of this story, and nearly all the time on stage is with him at some point tonight. There is just nowhere for Joshua as Christopher to hide from an audience tonight, and his performance simply makes or breaks the whole show.
The story is also on another level about the strain in a relationship that bringing up Christopher has put on his father Ed (Stuart Laing) and his mother Judy (Gina Isaac) Stuart Laing spends a lot of time on stage in the first act and is very impressive as a man struggling to cope with not only Christopher but his own personal circumstances. Joshua and Stuart make a very believable father and son pair on stage. Gina Isaac also is on great form as a mother far less able than her partner to cope with bringing up Christopher and his at times very demanding needs.
We also get to know a little bit about the relationship between Christoper and his teacher Siobhan (Geraldine Alexander). Geraldine gets a chance to put in a very good performance as the very understanding teacher who knows precisely how to speak to Christopher and how to give him advice on dealing with stress and anger. It is Siobhan who at the beginning is reading from Christopher's journal.
There is a lot happens in Act Two that forces Christopher out of his safety zone and requires him to make the epic journey on his own to London. If you have not read the book or seen this play before, then I am deliberately going to leave this out of the review as there are some real surprises to Christopher's ordered world coming up.
Simon Stephens has done a great job of adapting the original story for the stage and somehow transferring that personal touch with Christoper and the reader to Christopher and an audience. A lot of the success of the performance also goes to the technical people too ... set, lighting, video, sound and music.
We get to meet along the way some of Christopher's neighbours, people at school, people he encounters on his journey and these are all well played parts tonight. I miss no one out intentionally, but the focal point of this story is on a small cast of people.
Everyone on stage of course knows who put in the scene-stealing perfomance tonight, and that was Sandy the puppy dog close to the end. How can any human actor compete with that?
This is a very good adaptation of the book and a fine piece of work in its own right. Try and get along to the show this week if you can.
I have to say here that I have never known anyone with Asperger Syndrome, but this work gives me maybe the smallest insight into what coping with that as a person or a family member/friend might be like. If you want to find out a bit more about this you might want to visit this weblink.
Review by Tom King