National Theatre of Great Britain. Adelaide Entertainment Centre. 31 Jul 2018
Oh, what a set. What a mighty set. The high-tech cube has landed and settled in to the Entertainment Centre Theatre space to perform its feats of visual acrobatics. This remarkable piece of theatre design represents the mind of boy who is on the high functioning end of the autistic spectrum. It extrapolates in images those experiences which sometimes most calamitously overwhelm the boy’s senses and sometimes those which are solutions to his thinking. It endeavours to give audiences a visceral experience of the mysterious other-world of autism.
The boy, Christopher Boone, is the subject of the Simon Stephens play based on the best-selling book by Mark Haddon. It is quite an extraordinary play, presenting some of its peripheral characters not so much as cameos but as silvers of persona, pop-up and incidental, as if glanced from the corner of the eye. It also presents city hordes in marvellously choreographed motions by the cast.
The world is shown as 15-year-old Christopher perceives it. He lives with his father and his pet rat in Swindon. He’s a maths savant. He can’t bear to be touched. He is afraid of crowds and strangers.
The dead dog, Wellington, who has been brutally impaled on a garden fork, is an impasse for him. His quest is to find out who killed the dog. It will be his detective novel in the style of his hero, Sherlock Holmes, he vows.
Finding out who killed the dog throws Christopher’s world into mayhem, causing him to set out for London, all alone, by train and tube.
Therein, the stage becomes a drama of trains and tubes, incredibly effective with glaring headlights and tunnels and sound and chaos. It feels epic. Like a latterday Candide, Christopher finds his way.
Themes of relationships with parents and teachers, with love and loyalty and honesty as well as courage, general knowledge and maths are woven into the play and the stage is busy with light and form and spectacle - none greater than when Christopher runs around the walls.
The agility and stamina of Joshua Jenkins in the role of Christopher is simply breathtaking. It is exhausting to behold, not only the torrents of stilted dialogue but also the desperate, screaming panic attacks. It’s tour-de-force stuff and, unsurprisingly, he receives a standing ovation.
The large supporting cast also come with all the creamy calibre of West End theatre, most prominently Stuart Laing as Ed, Emma Beattie as Judy, and Julie Hale as Siobhan.
The debate goes on about whether or not Christopher truly is meant to represent a person with Aspergers or elsewhere on the autistic spectrum. There are arguments that this work is just about a mathematician who is different. This all seems precious chatter when the play itself is such a spectacular voyage into that strange world. Anyone who has had a relationship with an autistic person will want to grasp onto the depictions of frustration and physical otherness delivered in this play, not to mention the agonising dilemmas of parents and teachers trying to keep such troubled souls calm and secure.
It is a sensational piece of theatre in anyone’s terms, albeit sometimes very loud and overwhelming.
Alas, for Adelaide audiences, there is the problem of the venue. Once again, the lack of raked seating in the stalls denies the audience full view of the stage and what goes on at foot level. In this production, the floor is a crucial area whereupon a miniature world is laid out. Sadly, this was not visible to many. The Entertainment Centre really should consider bleacher seating at the least in this otherwise fine theatre space.
When: 31 Jul to 4 Aug
Where: Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre