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Photo credit: Julie Hale, Stuart Laing and Joshua Jenkins in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg)

How 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in-the Night-Time' went from beloved book to theatrical phenomenon

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

It's been almost 10 years since Christopher Boone travelled from the pages of Mark Haddon's bestselling novel to the stage at the National Theatre. Numerous productions worldwide and countless awards later, Curious Incident is just as beloved as ever, with an anniversary tour beginning later this month at London's Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre.

But how did this seemingly unadaptable story become a global dramatic hit? After all, Haddon's book is written in the very specific first-person voice of 15-year-old Christopher, a mathematics genius who struggles with social cues and interaction. Although Haddon has never labelled him, it's generally understood that he's on the autistic spectrum, possibly with Asperger's syndrome. And, rather unhelpfully for theatre, Christopher abhors metaphor.

The dream director and writer team adapted the story.

Enter Marianne Elliott, the innovative director who has helmed the likes of War Horse, Angels in America, Death of a Salesman and a gender-swapped version of Stephen Sondheim's Company. Together with playwright Simon Stephens, who adapted Haddon's novel for stage, Elliott devised a brilliantly creative way of reinterpreting the story, while retaining its essential plot - and, crucially, still giving us that insight into Christopher's perspective.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time takes its name from a Sherlock Holmes tale and, on the surface, functions as a murder mystery. Who stabbed Wellington, the dog belonging to Christopher's neighbour, with a garden fork? That inciting incident takes us all around Christopher's stomping ground in Swindon, Wiltshire, and far beyond, illuminating his relationship with his father and absent mother.

Elliott gets around the problem of Curious Incident's form by creating a play-within-a-play. The play has been written by Christopher, chronicling his adventures, and his teacher reads sections aloud. That takes us into the action, though his interjections allow us to understand how he processes everything, too. But it's not just about words: Elliott's vivid production uses every element of stagecraft possible to immerse us in Christopher's experience, particularly when he visits London.

Imaginative set and visual design creates the world.

The audience goes through that same sensory overload thanks to the dynamic combination of Bunny Christie's set, Paule Constable's lighting and Finn Ross's video, as well as expressive movement from Frantic Assembly's Steven Hogget and Scott Graham. The abstract design places us inside Christopher's head: so it's an ordered, mathematical grid onto which diagrams, maps and information are projected, and also reflects the comparison Christopher makes between his own brain and Sherlock Holmes's laboratory of a mind. Plus anyone familiar with whodunits will recognise elements of the police incident board.

Luke Treadway and Paul Ritter (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

A talented cast brought the story to life.

But any great drama needs human grounding, too, and Elliott absolutely had that with her debut cast: Luke Treadaway as Christopher, Niamh Cusack as teacher Siobhan, Una Stubbs as Mrs Alexander, Paul Ritter as Christopher's father, and Nicola Walker as his mother. The play instantly clicked with audiences and critics alike and soon transferred to the West End, where it has played at three different West End theatres over the years: the Apollo, the Gielgud and the Piccadilly.

The play is an award winner on both sides of the pond.

Curious Incident has been showered with awards, winning seven Oliviers, including Best New Play and Best Director, and, following its triumphant transfer to Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre, a further six Tony Awards. It has toured the UK and the US, and been staged everywhere from Melbourne and Mexico to Toronto, Amsterdam, Beijing and South Africa. Seen by more than five million people worldwide, this is a story with universal resonance. 

Curious Incident comes back to London 10 years later.

Now, Curious Incident returns to London for the first time since 2019 and plays at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre, kicking off the show's 10th anniversary UK and Ireland tour. One interesting change from previous productions is that the casting team consciously sought out actors with "lived experience of neurodivergence" for the role of Christopher, as we have come to better understand the importance of that sensitive representation. In the casting notice, the National Theatre wrote that they wanted to "remove barriers this audition process might usually pose" to such performers, and that they would continue to work with whoever is cast by, for example, enabling them to tour with a support worker.

That feels like a significant step forward, honouring the show's legacy while taking the opportunity to widen access and encourage neurodivergent performers to help shape this rich role. There will also be relaxed performances of Curious Incident at both the Troubadour and on tour, plus discussions on depictions of neurodivergence in fictional characters available online as part of a programme of activities.

This production creates a fresh chapter for the wonderful story as the play continues to finds new audiences, inspiring us all to better understand and empathise with one another, to embrace difference, and to be transported by the magic of theatre.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time begins its 10th anniversary tour at Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre. Book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time tickets on LondonTheatre.co.uk.

Photo credit: Julie Hale, Stuart Laing and Joshua Jenkins in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Photo by BrinkhoffMögenburg)

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