Theatre Review: The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, Empire Theatre, Liverpool

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Image Source: ATG

Written By: Mark Armstrong

Format: Play
Genre: Drama
Date: July 25 2017
Location: Liverpool Empire Theatre

I had heard about The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time and I had seen the billboard advertisements, but I didn’t really know anything about it. Having seen it for the first time at the Liverpool Empire, I would now find it hard to forget anything about the show, which is a very, very good thing.

The show begins with Christopher Boone (Scott Reid), a 15-year-old boy, discovers a dead dog which belonged to Mrs Shears. The dog has a pitchfork through it, and Mrs Shears (Eliza Collins) immediately blames Christopher. A policeman tries to intervene only to arrest Christopher for striking him, and Christopher’s father Ed (David Michaels) has to bring him home from the police station. Despite his father telling him otherwise, Christopher decides to investigate the death of Mrs Shears’ dog Wellington, quizzing neighbours and other local residents. Around this time, Ed informs Christopher that his mother Judy (Emma Beattie) has died in hospital after suffering a heart attack.

This is important for obvious reasons, but also because, while Christopher conducts his investigation (with Ed reacting angrily upon discovering this, only for Christopher to continue his detective pursuit), he meets Mrs Alexander, who reveals to him that his mother had been having an affair with Mr. Shears (Oliver Boot). This clearly led to Christopher’s parents splitting, as well as a split between the Shears too. Ed is even angrier with Christopher when he realises that his son knows this information, but the biggest revelations come towards the end of the first half. Christopher discovers a plethora of letters which Judy had written to him, but to which he was never allowed access. This reveals the truth about what happened to his mother in light of the aforementioned affair, and when a heartbroken Ed has to tell his son the details, he also reveals who killed Wellington. Both convince Christopher to travel from his hometown of Swindon to see his mother in London, having completely lost faith in his father.

All of this makes for a compelling story in its own right, but there is one very important element which takes the story to another level. Though it is never explicitly stated at any point, Christopher has a condition which would be considered part of the autism spectrum (most likely Asperger’s syndrome, though the writer has stated that it is up to the audience to decide what condition he has). This alters his reactions to everything, as well as everybody else’s reactions to him amongst those who know him. For Christopher doesn’t realise the impact that people’s actions and words have at times, whilst reacting with a sense of fear and by lashing out should anyone touch him in any way. Little things matter greatly to him. He takes expressions and metaphors literally, and his desire to learn more overcomes those who tell him not to do something. Even when people tell him not to bother tracking down Wellington’s killer, he has to continue his detective work because he cannot live knowing that the question remains unanswered.

It affects his motions, his facial expressions, his manner of speech, his lifestyle, his relationship with those around him; just about everything within his life. His mother and father obviously realise how he is, as do his teachers and fellow school staff. Those who don’t quickly realise that he is, in the most positive sense of the word, different, and those who treat him as just another teenage boy demonstrate ignorance for not picking up on the fact that negative words or unnecessarily harsh criticisms do a much greater level of damage to Christopher than they would to anybody else. It’s also worth noting how his condition makes him stronger and more inquisitive, as well as being more intelligent; he is the only student in his school who will be taking A-Levels early due to his tremendous knowledge, making him incredibly clever not only for someone in his situation, but for any boy at his age.

As a writer who would also be considered to have a condition on the autism spectrum, and as someone who encountered much of the negativity and the “what’s wrong with you” attitudes shown by secondary characters here, I can not only completely relate to and sympathise with Christopher, but also have great admiration for the way in which the story (originally a novel) has been written and certainly for how it is performed and produced. Put any other character in Christopher’s situation and he may become larger-than-life or even annoying. Use the character that Christopher possesses, though, and the show becomes a fascinating, emotional and almost heart-breaking spotlight on life for both the sufferer and the family when it comes to those with such conditions.

There were light-hearted moments during the show, but this is more than anything a true drama which packs one hell of a punch, and likely brought many in attendance to tears more than once. The visual cues which are never discussed (like Christopher essentially miming with his hands to his parents rather than them touching him) make an impact, but it’s also worth considering the aspects of Christopher’s life which are never touched upon, but which upon reflection make his situation even sadder: we’re never told if Christopher has any friends, we never see him smile, we’re not told how the family first noticed his condition or whether his methods of coping with life will ever change in any way for the better. And yet Christopher only sheds tears when he learns the truth about his mother; otherwise, life is completely normal to him, never realising that not everybody is like him.

There are no words to truly emphasise how incredible Scott Reid is as Christopher. He is completely convincing, truly immersing himself in the role and becoming that character on stage. It’s one of the most compelling acting performances I can remember seeing, not to mention the fact that Christopher has a ton of dialogue, much of it delivered rapid-pace, further boosting his truly phenomenal portrayal of Christopher by Scott. David Michaels is also excellent as Ed, attracting both sympathy and negativity in equal measure based on the situation, but while never losing sight of the fact that this man truly loves his son, despite everything that is going on in their lives. We don’t see too much of Emma Beattie as Judy, but when we do, she is also extremely convincing, coming across as someone whose strength has been weakened by the toil of family life over the years, but with her heart never losing the love she has for Christopher either. Other characters make occasional appearances, with strong performances by all when required.

A screen displaying 3D effects similar to movies like Tron is used as the setting for the entire show, with props brought on-stage to help move scenes into different locations. The visual effects used on the background screen are very simple but incredibly effective, demonstrating everything from a blackboard to a bedroom to a London underground station. The sound and lighting effects further bring us into specific environments, without the need for fancy walls and windows or any proper background set changes. There is clearly a level of humour to be found in even the most emotional of scenes, and I should mention that a passing reference to a potential post-show scene should be taken literally because, whilst not a major moment in the production, it’s a fun way to end the night for those who have been paying attention.

Last night, clearly, virtually everybody did based on the standing ovation for the cast, and for Scott Reid as Christopher in particular. I hope that the rumoured movie version comes to pass, and I would like to see a television drama version of this as well, though based on the occasionally strong language and the heavy aspects of the themes discussed, I would not advise young children to see it; everybody else simply has to, though, because it’s an unbelievable and moving production to say the very least.

In closing, The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time is one of the best theatre shows I have ever seen and, whilst occasionally an uncomfortable viewing experience, I would consider it to be an essential show for theatregoers to see, especially those whose real-life situations may relate to that of Christopher and his family. It’s absolutely outstanding, and a show which richly deserves the highest possible ratings awarded to it by almost everybody who has seen it.

Overall Rating: 10/10 – Perfect