Friday, July 27, 2012


National Theatre at the Cottesloe

This review refers to an early preview. If you want to do what I did, and come to the piece with the book unread and the plot unspoiled, look away now. Get into the Cottesloe if you can, or see the show beamed via NT live to your local cinema.

They promised that if we were interested, we could stay behind to hear how he solved his A-level maths problem.
[In the book, it's an appendix.] But like many promises in the troubled life of Christopher Boone, it seems to have been broken. No train ran round level 2 in the Cottesloe, either.

How to turn Mark Haddon's unique book into a stage play ?
The chief obstacle is the narrator's voice: the book he writes – prominent, with its green cover, in this staging – is the medium for everything we learn about the two mysteries in his teenage life, and though there is direct speech, it is presumably as he remembered it.

Approaches might include narration, or a physical theatre approach, with minimal set and props, or a literal acting -out [reflecting Christopher's metaphor-free world view], or a high-tech spectacle, in deference to his love of computers. Or, if desperate, have the story acted out as a play at his special school, Marat/Sade-style.

Simon Stephens' adaptation, directed by Marianne Elliott, has elements of all these; the last, despite acting being a kind of lying, provides some nicely witty moments, including the head-teacher of the school having her verbatim say, and Christopher intervening to adjust details of accuracy and casting.

But, perhaps deliberately, it makes for a confusing experience. When he finds the letters hidden beneath the toolkit [after an amusingly literal search of dad's bedroom], they are real letters [they later flutter down from the roof]. But when he sits down to read them, they are mimed. The panic at Paddington is partly physical [movement by Frantic Assembly], partly soundtrack, as is the – very successful – sequence on the train. And then there's the question of empathy. We cannot help putting ourselves into the shoes of the chap who rescues Christopher [and Toby] in the tube, and misses his train. More importantly, Paul Ritter's Ed and Nicola Walker's Judy – both superb performances, the father hesitant and desperate in his frustration, the mother longing to love her literally unlovable boy – are known by us directly, which seems to go against the spirit of the original.

Niamh Cusack's Siobhan has much of the narration, and is a positive, stable voice in a very turbulent tale. Excellent support from the ensemble, who spend much of the time sitting around the edge of the acting area, Equus-style. Including of course Una Stubbs as the neighbour who blabs and longs to chat with Christopher.

The boy is played very convincingly by Luke Treadaway. Obsessive, gifted, confused, bruised and edgy, he manages to show us the hurtful, damaged adult world from his naïve viewpoint, and let us inside his very private universe, helped by some haunting images of space and mathematics.

The floor is used as a screen [glad we chose an upper level] – negative graph-paper, bits of which move up to be a desk, down to be the tube track. The model railway works [as a metaphor, for me] and Sandy is flesh-and-blood. There are blocks [numbered] for furniture, which re-inforces the feel of drama-school work, and the primes are scattered around the auditorium, with envelopes promising prizes. "293", next to us, was that promise kept, I wonder ?

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