AT THE heart of the stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time swirls a singular mystery.
What is it that makes 15-year-old Christopher Boone spend so much time in his own head?
Does he have autism — and does it really matter that the play never gets around to answering the question?
“Haddon was careful not to be explicit about it in the book,” says Lucianne McEvoy, who plays Christopher’s school teacher, Siobhan, in a new touring production of the theatrical blockbuster which begins a five-night run at Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on April 25.
“On the cover of an early edition was a blurb that mentioned Asperger’s,” says McEvoy.
“Mark Haddon regretted that. Christopher has a lot in common with people on the autistic spectrum. But we try not to be specific.”
Curious Incident is an unlikely hit.
It has played in the West End of London since 2012, drawing praise for its innovative staging, in which the workings of Boone’s savant brain are represented by glowing white lines and numbers.
Amid the deluge of musicals and American imports jostling for theatre goers’s attention, the piece stands defiantly apart: There are no riotous song and dance numbers or extravagant costume changes.
Instead, the audience is drawn inside the imagination of a young man interacting with the world on unique terms.
“Commercial theatre on this scale is rare,” says McEvoy, from Dublin and now based in Glasgow.
“It feels strange to be on stage with more than two actors in a straight play nowadays. The marketing company recommends to theatres that they market Curious Incident like a musical.
"The audience is very vocal throughout the show. It’s an inclusive experience.”
The new production stars Scottish actor Scott Reid as the troubled Christopher, whose world is tilted off its axis when he stumbles upon the remains of his neighbour’s dog.
The discovery sparks off a train of events culminating in Christopher learning there is more to the death of his mother several years previously than he has been told by his bullying and aloof father.
The unprepossessing 22-year-old is an up-and-coming talent and can currently be seen alongside Vicky McClure and Thandie Newton in the BBC’s rotten-copper romp Line Of Duty.
“I’m just a boy from Glasgow. Filming with them was a huge experience,” he says.
“Working with the best actors is so educational. You see someone such as Thandie Newton and you ask yourself ‘how do I get to their level of consistency?’ I’m doing five shows a week — how can I keep the bar at its highest for five nights?”
We are backstage at Southampton’s art deco Mayflower Theatre, where Curious Incident is in the middle of a two-week run. Reid will spend much of the afternoon in his dressing room.
The physical demands of playing Boone requires him to conserve his energy through the day.
“You can’t slip up,” he says.
“The amount of dialogue is incredible — it’s like swimming the channel. You jump between time periods and goes through quite a lot of trauma. It’s intense.”
He doesn’t portray Christopher as “autistic”.
The nature of his condition is left unspecified — for the best, he feels.
“With this play it’s better if its unexplained what issue he’s got beyond the fact that he has learning difficulties,” say the actor.
“You can have fun with it and do things slightly differently every night.”
Curious Incident was adapted by Manchester playwright Simon Stephens. With the 2003 Young Adult novel a huge success — selling more than 2m copies and winning the Whitbread Award — Haddon sought out Stephens and asked him to write a stage treatment.
His motive was partly curiosity. He wanted to see if his complex book could come to life in a different context.
“As an actor you can’t use the stuff in the novel – if it’s in the book but not in the play then there’s a reason for it,” says Reid.
Haddon was eager for the Curious Incident to be about difference rather than a meditation on a specific disability or condition — an ambivalence that carries over into the play.
“He has a serious difficulty with life in that he really doesn’t empathise with other human beings,” he said of Christopher in a 2003 interview.
“He can’t read their faces. He can’t put himself in their shoes.
“And he can’t understand anything more than the literal meaning of whatever’s said to him, although I’m very careful in the book not to actually use the word ‘Asperger’s’ or ‘autism’... Because I don’t want him to be labelled, and because, as with most people who have a disability, I don’t think it’s necessarily the most important thing about him.”
Such was his determination to avoid writing an “Asperger’s novel” that he did the minimum of research into the condition.
“I have to say honestly that I did more research about the London Underground and the inside of Swindon Railway Station, where some of the novel takes place, than I did about Asperger’s syndrome.
“I gave him kind of nine or 10 rules that he would live his life by, and then I didn’t read any more about Asperger’s because I think there is no typical person who has Asperger’s syndrome, and they’re as large and diverse a group of people as any other group in society.”
One significant change from the book is the expanded role of Christopher’s teacher Siobhan, who serves as a proxy for the audience as they seek to understand the protagonist.
“It’s the nation’s favourite novel,” said Stephens shortly before the first production opened in London.
“This can’t be a piece of theatre that alienates people.
“I knew the key to it was the relationship between Christopher and his teacher. It’s not that central in the novel but it struck me that everyone in life has a favourite teacher.
"Even people who hated school, even people who found school a miserable experience, had one teacher who ‘got them’ in a way other teachers didn’t. I knew that if I could get that relationship right then people could recognise themselves in it.”
The story, on both page and screen, is thus at one level a reflection on what it is to be different.
However, there’s much more to it than that, believes Reid, who thinks Curious Incident is also a commentary on the trend towards cutting ourselves off from strangers.
Christopher is an unusual individual — and we watch him punished over and over for being different.
“The idea of the play is to encourage you to open your eyes — not be stuck in your own routine,” he says.
“We put on our headphones and go from a to b and we don’t give other people a second glance.
“You see people on the street begging and just brush them off because we’re to busy. We living in a society that has become more fractured, more divided.
"What the play is saying is that maybe we should be a little more patient with people we don’t know.”