Fifteen years ago, Mark Haddon's novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, entering the inner world of a teenager who experiences life differently (Christopher Boone), joined the canon occupied by The Rosie Project and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot.
Initially, it was described as a depiction of Asperger's Syndrome, but the author, after some people with Asperger's objected, wrote that The Curious Incident is "a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way".
The National Theatre faced the challenge of how to visualise the novel for the stage and gave some of the task to the playwright Simon Stevens.
Christopher is the archetypical "outsider" – obsessed with mathematics, alienated from the touch of others and astonishing in his highly focused literalistic grasp of detail. The production does not present him as a freak, but unflinchingly and affectionately.
Key to the play is the dead body of a golden retriever, which Christopher finds and whose murder he is determined to solve.
The whole cast plays many roles as Christopher's determined investigation leads him closer to the disintegration of his world, and makes him flee his home and take what for him is an alienating and terrifying train journey as he searches for his mother, whom he had previously thought to be dead.
Once again the hi-tech production brings us uncomfortably into the centre of a world of information overload and fear, as Christopher confronts and overcomes his daemons.
The novel was greeted as a tour de force.
The play brings it to life and is a brave attempt to allow us to enter an intense and very different world.
Christopher (the mathematically gifted and socially inept teenager) is encouraged by his teacher to write a play, based on his investigations into the killing of his neighbour's dog, and all the mayhem that that unleashes.
There is what at first appears to be a minimalist set – theatre in a square – but during the action, we discover that the floor is inset with led lights, which mirror neural pathways and define street maps, and subway stations. Projectors make mathematical formulae appear and illustrate what Christopher is thinking and experiencing, as his remorseless black and white literalism collides with the metaphors and evasions of an imperfect world.
The play has some superb performances. Joshua Jenkins, as Christopher, steals our heart, as within the strait-jacket of his constricted worldview he struggles to make sense of an apparently random and senseless world, where he is overwhelmed by too much information, which he cannot easily process. Christopher cannot bear to be physically touched, and the play shows how people around him impact on his life. Stuart Laing as his father makes both his love and frustration palpable, as his son's disability threatens to destroy his marriage and his sanity. Emma Beattie, as Christopher's mother, struggles with the guilt of deserting her son, and the awareness that he has driven her past the ability to cope.
A neighbour brings warmth and humanity to the plot and his teacher shows professionalism, wisdom and kindness.
The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time as a book, is unforgettable -- humorous, touching, and bitter-sweet. It lets us into the mind of a brilliant but limited autistic mind.
The play brings that plot to life on the stage, and the superb acting, direction and staging gives us moving and profound drama.
Opening night had a lot of high school pupils, who clearly were entranced by the play, responsive to its humour and its sadnesses, and who, at the end of the play burst into spontaneous and heartfelt applause – cheers, whistles and stamping of feet accompanying a very lengthy and well-deserved standing ovation.
That this multi-layered and complex play spoke so directly to them – and to the rest of us – is a tribute to a very remarkable production, and to very sensitive acting.