Director Marianne Elliott's endlessly inventive production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is one of those rare plays that sucks you completely into its world and doesn't let you out until the curtain call.
By the final scene of a show, I've often written pages and pages of barely legible notes on my reviewer's pad. But at the end of this play, I looked down to see I'd written just six words over 2 1/2 hours: "Dog with pitchfork," "floating," "train" and "Willesden."
And this was my second time seeing Elliott's Tony-winning production – immersive in the old-fashioned sense and a perfect balance of flash and feeling.
Adapted from Mark Haddon's best-selling novel, Curious Incident tells the story of 15-year-old Christopher Boone (Joshua Jenkins), who comes home from school one day to discover the dog next door is dead, a pitchfork sticking out of its chest.
After a policeman takes him in for questioning because of his odd behaviour, Christopher becomes obsessed with finding the dog's killer – over the strenuous objections of his concerned caretaker and single father, Ed (David Michaels).
The twist to this mystery is that our amateur detective has autism spectrum disorder – or something like it. Neither Haddon nor Simon Stephens, who wrote this stage adaptation, ever actually diagnose Christopher.
Instead, they let him be who he is without labels – a teenager who goes to a special school but has an incredible passion for math and physics; who despises the colours yellow and brown and likes to wedge himself into cupboards from time to time; and who can easily become overwhelmed by sound, lights or touch and has to sit down and scream it out.
Elliott's smartly conceived production doesn't try to show Christopher out in the world, but instead, shows the world from Christopher's unique point of view. This means occasional bursts of deafening sound and blinding lights on designer Bunny Christie's holodeck-like set, but also lingering moments of silence and intense focus on something as simple as the sound of the rain.
There's a clever use of secret compartments that allows props to pop in and out of the playing area as Christopher notices a particular object and then moves on, and these alcoves are also where our hero keeps the pieces of a giant train set that he assembles for a simple yet stunning end to the first act. (Hence my note "train.")
While Christopher can't stand human touch, movement directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett fill the production with it, gorgeously choreographed, as the boy is lifted up walls and through the air by the other nine actors on stage at times. ("Floating.")
With all these moving pieces and people, Curious Incident could have been all spectacle. But the most noteworthy aspect of Elliott's production is perhaps its deep wells of emotion. The relationships that Christopher has with his father and his teacher, Siobhan (Julie Hale) – as well as his mother, Judy (the marvellous, raspy-voiced Emma Beattie), who appears in flashbacks – are beautifully, movingly drawn.
In Stephens's adaptation, Christopher is writing the story of the mystery of the dog's death as a class assignment before the intermission and in the second half, the book he has written is being adapted for a play at his school. This metatheatrical conceit pokes its way into the story in odd and occasionally off-putting ways, but ultimately allows for a playfulness in performance that permits a brilliant post-curtain call surprise.
I don't want to say too much about the plot because it is, at first, a real mystery with a surprising resolution. The second half of the play is more of an adventure story, or a quest – "Willesden" is a clue – and while journeys tend to be problematic on stage, Elliott's use of both physical theatre and projections to show how challenging it is for Christopher to use an ATM, go to the bathroom or take public transportation makes every moment of it a real nail-biter.
At the centre of the production as Christopher, Jenkins's performance is astounding from a pure stamina point of view – and, if the math-spouting autistic kid has become a cliché, he nevertheless sells it well. Otherwise, the ensemble acting is largely there to service the storytelling – and it does so exceptionally.
Curious Incident originated at Britain's National Theatre and sparked a Broadway production that eventually spawned a U.S. tour. Mirvish Productions has brought in the British touring production to Toronto and it's a real treat to hear British actors showcase a diversity of British accents – different regions, ethnicities and classes.
My only complaint: Christie's box set does not sit perfectly on the Princess of Wales stage. It should have been elevated a few more feet for those of us in the orchestra, and the sightlines from the sides are less than ideal. It's a four-star show if you're in the right seat, so choose wisely – but don't miss it.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (mirvish.com) continues to Nov. 19.