Christopher John Francis Boone, the unlikely hero of Mark Haddon’s 2003 bestselling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is not so much an unreliable narrator as he is an extremely focused narrator. The 15-year-old math savant is clearly on the autism spectrum, emotionally detached and rigorously literal-minded. He sticks to rituals and hard facts. He has to, since the world’s external stimuli threaten to overpower and madden him. Christopher loves the color red, dotes on his pet rat Toby and disdains idiomatic expressions: Tell him he’ll have a whale of a time and he will picture breaching orcas.
Despite the Sherlockian title and gruesome crime scene it opens with, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which opened in 2012 at the National Theatre and is still running on the West End) solves the case relatively quickly. By the end of the first act we know whodunit (that is, impaled Christopher’s neighbor’s pooch with a pitchfork), and we’ve gotten another revelation, this one having to do with his mother. But there’s a broader mystery raised by this dazzling and pulse-pounding drama: “How on earth did they do that?”
By “that,” we mean how director Marianne Elliot, playwright Simon Stephens, cast and crew translate such tricky source material. In the book we see the world through Christopher’s narrowed eyes as a confusing welter of codes that need to be decrypted. Adults are irrational or foolish – even dangerous. Christopher is reflexively arrogant, yet so very vulnerable. Merely touching him provokes a fit of screaming. The strain of raising such a gifted but challenged child shows on his well-meaning but anger-prone father (Ian Barford), who one day informs the impassive boy that his mother had died. Later, Christopher finds the neighbor’s dog murdered, and decides to catch the killer. His journey leads him to London and into a sense-barraging sequence on the Underground.
The success of the book has much to do with the narrator’s uncanny mix of factual rigor and literalism and his bravery in the face of traumatic daily life. That combination of intense emotionalism and visual dazzle is captured brilliantly in Elliott’s production, awash in video projections and moving parts (the ingenious grid-lined set is by Bunny Christie). Stephens’ lean, fast-moving adaptation makes smart use of the ensemble to create a polyphony of voices for narrative heavy lifting, while his domestic scenes don’t stint on grimness. A sympathetic special-needs teacher (Francesca Faridany) floats through the action as a bridge between Christopher’s loving but flawed parents and the ideal world the boy aspires to: one of computers, numbers, space travel and his pet rat Toby.
Christopher could be played either cute or creepy, and the talented, charismatic Alex Sharp – moon-faced and boyish – leans toward the puppyish side. Given the terrible events at Sandy Hook not two years ago, you can be sure the producers were cautious about how to portray a young man so desperately detached from emotional norms. Clearly they went for sweet and relatable, not cold and affectless. The casting of warm-and-fuzzy Sharp is echoed by a small, furry guest appearance at the end of this wrenching but exhilarating night, a bundle of sweetness well earned.