By BRUCE DENNILL
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time / Directed by Paul Warwick Griffin / Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
Mark Haddon’s novel, on which this play of the same name is based, was a genre-busting bestseller about the journeys – through life and day-to-day interactions that seem so simple to others; and from Swindon to London in an attempt to solve a crime – of a complex autistic character named Christopher. Christopher’s unique perspectives and way of processing what he sees and feels, brilliantly and conceptually communicated by Haddon, were the core of the appeal of the book, and drive the story’s stage adaptations as well.
International stagings of the piece have included a fully digitised stage in which complex lighting, sound and special effects, aided by a hard-working but relatively low-key supporting cast, help the audience get a sense of the high-intensity mental maelstrom that Christopher experiences around the clock.
That set and much of the high-concept technology are not available in this production, and though neither that nor having read the book is a prerequisite for seeing and enjoying this version, there are some challenges to making this rendering the most effective retelling it could be.
Split into two acts – roughly a first half in which Christopher (Kai Brummer) interacts mostly with his father (Ashley Dowds) and a second period in which the bulk of his contact is with his mother (Jenny Stead), the show has a number of stylistic ideas, some of which work well and some of which are somewhat distracting. Short, sharp scene changes requiring pinpoint mark-hitting are great, creating a tense, fizzing energy. The set, though less elaborate than its counterparts in English and other productions, makes imaginative use of projections, lighting, hidden compartments and movable, multi-purpose blocks tht function as furniture, train platforms and more. And the cast are all spot-on in their cues and responses – not easy when you consider that, other than Brummer, Dowds, Stead and Leseko Seabe (as Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher and the play’s narrator), who play one character each, the remainder of the 10-strong ensemble are required to play anything between three and eight different characters. Pick of the bunch here are Kate Normington, variously angry, sweet and gobby as her roles require, and Nicholas Ellenbogen, who brings an enormous amount of heart to his generally sympathetic characters.
The entire cast is on stage almost all of the time, standing at the back when not actively involved and functioning as a sort of human dumbwaiter, passing clothing and other items disregarded by Brummer and whoever he’s talking to down the line and out of the audience’s sight. The collective focus of these actors during the periods when they are required to do little more than sit and look is impressive – it must be easy to drift and only re-emerge when a co-star nudges you in the ribs, but nobody does. But it’s a mechanism that initially confuses and often intrudes on the front-of-stage action. Perhaps, with a fully digital rig, the audience’s eyes are drawn elsewhere, but here there is relatively less to look at.
The play also feels a tad long, and there are a few short scenes that, on reflection, could be cut without detracting from the flow or power of the story, including a brief, fourth wall-breaking gimmick.
What really works, though, is Brummer’s performance. It is the young actor’s piece to carry and he does so with world-class verve, expression and attention to detail. Christopher is an extraordinary character to play – one that may only come along once or twice in a career – and Brummer has made it difficult to imagine him being played better. Interestingly, for a young man without empathy (on account of his condition), Christopher, played as well as this, inspires an enormous amount of compassion. Pity is never an option, though – he is brave and capable and dedicated to his cause, and it is the inspiration he provides that is easiest to recall as you leave the theatre.