Review by Peter Brown
12 March 2013
NOTE: CAST CHANGED SINCE THIS REVIEW
Based on the best-selling novel written by Mark Haddon, first published in 2003, this stage version was adapted by Simon Stephens and had its world premiere at the National's Cottesloe Theatre last August. Thankfully, the success of the original production has ensured its transfer and the chance for more of us to enjoy this poignantly powerful story. The title is inspired, but not original. It is a quote from the 1892 short story 'Silver Blaze' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the famous detective Sherlock Holmes which obviously provides the link with the detective work the initial scenes establish.
Christopher Boone is fifteen years-old. Or, to be more accurate, he is 15 years 3 months and 2 days old, as he informs us. That precision is highly significant because it reveals a very important clue as to Christopher's nature and character. He seems to have an autistic spectrum condition. I say 'seems' because I do not recall it being mentioned specifically in the dialogue, and Mark Haddon in his blog states that his work is a novel “whose central character describes himself as a mathematician with behavioural problems”. However, Christopher displays many of the recognisable traits of Asperger Syndrome and autism which manifest themselves in obsessive and unusual behaviour. For example, he is obsessed by patterns especially those found in the realm of mathematics. To calm himself when he is upset or confused, he recites prime numbers or other mathematical functions. He won't let anyone touch him, and gets very upset and angry when they do. He finds the world and the other people in it very confusing and suffers from information overload when he is in the company of large numbers of people, or in new situations. He does not understand the use of metaphor or some common instructions, for example when someone tells him to be quiet, he gets confused because they do not tell him how long to be quiet for.
Christopher lives with his father in Swindon in Wiltshire. His father has told him that his mother is dead. As Christopher undertakes his detective work, he interviews neighbours and discovers that his mother is not dead but lives in London with the man who used to be their neighbour. And when his father gets angry with him, Christopher decides to live with his mother and heads off to the capital to find her.
Marianne Elliott's flawless direction is both ingeniously creative as well as astutely authentic, and she manages to negotiate a difficult subject with sensitivity whilst simultaneously making it accessible and hugely enjoyable. Using actors instead of scenery such as doors and the like, there are times when the drama becomes balletic. The directorial vision is augmented by Bunny Christie's design which initially seems simply functional with huge walls of graph paper on three sides of the acting area, but springs into life to display animated graphics and maps, and even becomes an escalator on the London underground which Christopher has to walk down.
As Christopher, Luke Treadaway is truly mesmerising. If this is not an award-winning performance, I really don't know what is, or might be. Since he is the focus of the entire play, it must be an exhausting role, but Mr Treadaway never falters in his engrossing portrayal. He fiddles endlessly with his clothing, won't look people in the eye, panics and screams when he gets frightened or confused. Though Mr Treadaway has to describe rather unusual and extreme behaviour, he also invests the character with dignity which we readily respect, if not admire. Not only that, but during the first half he has to assemble an enormous model railway which eventually covers almost the entire stage complete with track, buildings and trees – an incredible feat of memory in itself. Inspired as Mr Treadaway's performance is, he is well-supported by the rest of the cast especially Holly Aird as his mother, Judy, and Seán Gleeson as Ed, his father.
This is not merely a play about a teenager with learning or behavioural problems, or with an autistic spectrum condition. Observing Christopher and the way he relates to society around him, we are ultimately challenged to examine our own behaviour and emotions, not just towards people with learning or psychological conditions, but also towards others in general. At the same time, we do get a real insight into the lives of those who have conditions such as autism, the plight of their parents and the roles of other people who care for them.
Multi-layered, fascinating and brilliantly realised, this is a production with many touching and moving moments. Unmissable.
What the popular press had to say...
"The show proved a big hit last summer and Marianne Elliott’s beautiful, ingenious and deeply-felt production has now transferred triumphantly to the West End. The show manages to be theatrical while remaining entirely true to the spirit of the book."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
Lyn Gardner for The Guardian
"A beautiful, eloquent show."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press
Telegraph - The Guardian -