Readers should note that the role of Christopher Boone is played alternatingly by two different actors, Connor Curren and David Breeds, as is the character of Judy, by Sophie Stone and Kate Kordel. On the night I saw the performance, Christopher was played by Curren, and Judy by Stone. I must start by clarifying that if I were to base my judgment upon the first act alone, this performance would have received a much more positive reading from me, but the second act really lets it down, hence my rating below...
This is a heartwarming tale, mostly true to the book of the same name by Mark Haddon with which the majority of the audience will most likely be familiar, usually comprising school children. It is comedic in places and moving in others. Adaptor Simon Stephens certainly captures well Christopher’s autism whilst still maintaining uniqueness in this character’s identity, personality and character. So, concept is certainly excellent, and writing does match this, overall. An articulate and well-structured text, considering everything together.
I shall elaborate below upon technical elements, but to start, my focus will remain on the nature of what is first presented to us: the overture. This is a very chaotic and untidy beginning. Whilst I initially enjoy the abrupt beginning, loud, bright and overwhelming, and the imagery of the ensemble robotically entering the stage in one, it soon becomes apparent that there is simply not enough action to warrant the violent flashing of the lights, revealing in a slow strobe Christopher kneeling by Mrs Shears’s dead dog as she watches on in horror. Whilst music is dramatic and lighting erratic, the imagery is far too still, and this jars against the rhythm of the music and tech.
This is also the first of many examples wherein the ensemble is used unnecessarily for cheap dramatic effect. There is no need for the ensemble to be in this overture; this is a private scene between Christopher, the dog and, later, Mrs Sears. One could read into this as though some sort of neighbourhood watch, as though everyone is gossiping, aware of the happenings in their neighbourhood, but this is too far a stretch here. We then have Kofi De-Graft-Jordan enter as the policeman, and his sheer lack of naturalism and awareness of the appropriate intonation and rhythm of speech required here only worsens the effect. An ultimately anticlimactic beginning.
Now, to acting. This performance sees has a great range in talent across its cast members, from Curren’s excellent characterisation of Christopher, performed with great articulacy, awareness of character personality and intent, legibility and timing, to Kofi De-Graft-Jordan’s poor characterisations of and lack of distinction between every one of his characters, as referenced above — so consistently poor, in fact, that I should mention rather bluntly that he ought to be recast. However, the vast majority of cast members, whilst I would like to see more transformativity from absolutely all members of the ensemble, perform with great conviction, energy and confidence. Notably, Kay Welch has done an excellent job with the vast majority of the cast as a voice and dialect coach, as well.
Overall, Curren, Tom Peters (playing Ed), Stone, and Rebecca Root (playing Siobhan) are excellent performers, but each has areas to improve on, though these pertain mostly to directorial and editorial issues.
As written above, Curren has great awareness of his character’s personality and intent. His expressivity is articulate, he is credible, and his timing is superb. However, Curren struggles to perform the stylised physical movements required of him convincingly. For example, during the ‘sped-up’ scene wherein Christopher is waiting for Mrs Alexander (Joanne Henry) — a scene executed articulately and strongly by the ensemble, I might add — his rocking is far too repetitive and deliberate. I must also consider here, though, that this is perhaps a directorial issue in that the particular physical movements themselves are unnatural to begin with.
Peters is one of the strongest performers and is practically faultless until his major monologue before the close of the first act. Conviction, energy and credibility are incredibly lacking in this scene, and this is another example of a moment where stillness inhibits our reading of character. Peters’s timing is off in this scene and lines are delivered far too quickly, allowing for no sense of shifts in emotion.
Stone’s expressivity, both corporeal and vocal, becomes somewhat repetitive rather quickly, seemingly always supplicatory when Judy talks to Christopher. Again, however, I understand this is chiefly due to repetitiveness in the writing and to direction. And finally, Root. Root is very good as Siobhan. She is clear on her character, and her timing is superb. She performs with good expressivity and articulacy. I would like to see a degree more corporeal expressivity in places and a degree less in others, however. For example, the scene wherein she and Stone both read Judy’s letter, her physicality is too violent and her address is too pointed at Stone. This feels as though a random standoff, and with Siobhan being so respectful towards Christopher’s parents’ decisions hitherto, such a drastic shift seems unwarranted and out of character.
On the topic of Root, I would like to see Siobhan’s character better integrated into this play. Despite narrating and sharing scenes with Christopher, Siobhan features rather minutely in this play, and so her emotionality when Christopher asks if he could stay with her, for instance, feels inessential and rather random. Of course, we as the audience feel that Christopher’s story is important, but why does Siobhan feel so attached to such a degree that she wants to make it into a play? This is not communicated well enough. What is more, the traditional narrational storytelling here I only find to be beneficial towards the beginning. Siobhan’s narrations are good to introduce us to the play, its world and its context but become rather repetitive and ineffective as the play progresses; the content rather speaks for itself without the narration.
Physical movement (directed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett) is severely overused in this performance, and to no real avail, and this comes to its climax in the second act. Some movements, such as when Stone is lifted by the ensemble to sit on their shoulders and be slowly rotated whilst she speaks, or when Curren is lifted by the ensemble to walk horizontally along the walls of the set, are most peculiar and unnatural. These do not feel as though they are progressing the material in any way, adding any symbolism or communicating content; instead, they feel overly ‘showy’, needlessly included for awe and effect.
Whether or not they are necessary or facilitative, however, these movements are certainly executed well and smoothly. Additionally, I must also consider that the principal audience type has always been GCSE drama students, permitting them to see how all the techniques that they are currently learning, with an emphasis on physical theatre and, particularly, on Graham and Hoggett’s work in Frantic Assembly, can be interwoven together to produce a coherent and engaging piece of theatre. I would just pay better attention to neutrality in expression amongst the ensemble members, as over-performativity is often an issue, drawing needless attention to stylisation, dampening effect and allowing for an undesirable metatheatricality [more on this below]. For example, in the second act, when Christopher ‘opens the front door’ and sneaks into his house and back out again, the member of the ensemble ‘playing’ the door express the cheeky slyness of his sneaking with a caricatural smile. Moments like this should be avoided.
Ironically, and rather paradoxically, there is also a tendency in this performance towards inertness. It seems that if actors are not given clear instruction as to how to move or what to do, such as Siu-See Hung leafing through her magazine at the information point or attempting to walk away with her umbrella as the Lady in Street, they simply stand still, watching on from a distance. Generally, speaking, this stillness should only be present to complement or juxtapose Christopher’s tempo-rhythm; if he is calm and composed, other characters should be busy and occupied, and if he is erratic, other characters should be still, ordered, precise. This is, admittedly, the case for a lot of scenes but not all, and momentum is often compromised by this. There is also a jarring and repetitive tendency to announce actions or to imply contexts before they are shown.
The theatrical language of the second act feels entirely disconnected from the first; it certainly feels as though we are watching two distinctly different plays. This is due to two reasons: 1) the aforementioned sudden disproportionate reliance upon physical movement, and 2) metatheatricality. I have addressed this former point already, and so this leaves me with the issue of metatheatricality. I have no idea why the creatives have decided to emphasise the fact that this is, indeed, a make-believe performance, with everything from these caricatural gestures from ensemble members to having actors walk past the front row of the audience to enter the stage from the house. These are completely unnecessary moments, completely shattering illusion, and for what reason? There is no symbolism or significance for these decisions, other than to add to fleeting comedic effect. This severely distances an audience in defictionalising the performance, not allowing them to lose themselves in a quirky and unique moment on stage but solely making them aware of themselves, of each other and of the physical performance space, of the artificiality and inauthenticity of performance as a practice and device.
Referenced only a few times in the first act, the second act is littered with metatheatrical techniques, and these do not progress our reading in any way or relate whatsoever to the performance. For example, Christopher’s explanation of how he arrived at the answer for his difficult maths question. We are to believe that this is the 'true' Christopher, unafraid of the magnitude of the theatre and the audience, coaxing this audience to roar and applaud, unfazed by the dazzling lights and bursting confetti? Somehow he is unaffected by the sheer raucous and overloading sensory stimuli? This completely juxtaposes our understanding of his identity and does not progress the material or our reading of it in any way. In fact, it works against it. Even the mere idea that the characters ‘should’ make a play from Christopher’s story fails to recognise that this is already happening and that Christopher’s indifference, nay disapproval, of this does not equate his excitement and direct address during this final speech. It is simply metatheatricality for the sake of it, with no rationality or logic behind it. It feels as though yet another mere excuse to flaunt the unique theatrical features of this performance, with Christopher referencing and celebrating the flashy technical components and musicians before exiting the stage neutrally as though nothing has happened.
Also destabilising the audience’s temporospatial awareness, to such a degree where they are removed from illusion and fiction and aware of the material reality of the stage, is the inclusion of animals. There is no reason as to why real animals should be used in this performance, especially given that puppets are used elsewhere, as when we see Toby the Rat in space or when he is picked up from the tube tracks, or, of course, the obnoxiously artificial Wellington’s cadaver. Again, there is no purpose for the use of these, other than to facilitate the affect of cuteness, to monetarily please the audience with the adorability of a puppy and a small rodent. Morally, however these animals are treated and handled by Des Jordan or trained beyond the stage, this practice is also entirely cruel. With the loudness of the audience and the music, the bright lights and erratic movements, this is simply dangerous and unethical, especially given that Stone and Curren place items upon ‘Toby’s’ carrier whilst he is still inside it, after handing it to Ashley Gerlach (as Mr Shears), one of which is a weighty and large A-Z Map booklet. Again, I stress: there is no symbolic or significant purpose for this, other than to invoke fleeting pleasure that takes the audience out of the performance completely and solely towards the realisation that ‘animals are cute’. Needless, subtractive and cruel.
As for set (designed Bunny Christie), obviously, the geometric, flat and mathematical design is congruous with the content of the performance, communicating Christoper’s character well. That only bold black and white should be used in lieu of colour is a good decision, conveying not only Christopher’s methodicalness but his lack of understanding for ‘the grey in the middle’ of brute black-and-white facts, which he communicates to us himself early on in the play. I will say that I find props being kept on the lower protruding frames around the parameters of the stage untidy, and unnecessary if they are to be used so fleetingly by members of the ensemble who could simply carry them on their person or have them kept in the wings or to the darkened side of the stage — just as Hannah Sinclair Robinson keeps her props when playing Mrs Gascoyne. I am also rather confused as to why axis labels on the side of the graph start with Q and end with the sequence 'Z, AA, BB', but I suppose this is somewhat negligible. ‘Cupboards’ are also often left ajar by Curren, which prompts a hand to come through and grab the cupboard shut from the wings; this is completely destructive of illusion and must be addressed immediately. Ignoring these elements, oversimplicity is avoided by the detailing of the graph and by the later complexity of technical elements, making this sleek design a very charming and versatile blank canvas.
Combined with technical elements, projection and lighting, this is, most famously, a very dynamic and malleable set, from the openable ‘cupboards’ to the sides of the stage to the projections on the walls and to the moving train set at the end of the first act [more on this below]. However, whereas emphasis is placed solely on the bodies of the performers themselves during the first act, the second act is obnoxiously tech-heavy and demonstrates its complexity much to the detriment of this performance.
With lighting designed by Paule Constable, sound designed by Ian Dickinson and video graphics designed by Finn Ross, technical elements are incredibly attractive, and most famously so. Whilst I do believe that the nature of the second act rather approximates an overkill, I do believe that these three components combine immaculately to convey the chaos and terrors of Christopher’s journey to London. It is the subtler elements, such as the blue-lit and orange-lit blocks representative of a fishtank and an oven, and the large-scale elements every so often, like the constellations that appear on the walls of the stage, or the map of London, that really facilitate and consolidate this dramatic text. They are simply awe-inspiring. A beautiful integration of technical components into the set. Equally as beautiful is the working train set, but it is a shame that Curren kept accidentally kicking the tracks whilst running imprecisely around the stage, disrupting the train’s path and causing it to stop prematurely when it was time for it to complete its circuit. I would make sure to address this. Design-wise, perfect tech, and music by Adrian Sutton is just as complementary, with inspirations from Christopher’s passions, such as prime numbers, being subtle and notably missable to the untrained ear yet very intelligent. Overall, this is a most remarkable and memorable performance, but overly showy elements, from the versatility of the blocks (a toilet, a suitcase, a podium) to the unnecessary group physical movements, certainly compromise the performance’s integrity, communicating very little in an attempt to communicate a lot. The only other problem I have not yet noted is the performance’s inability to adapt to different venues. For example, for this particular staging at TroubadourTheatre, audience members in the front row could not see the floor, and restricted views such as this are most destructive for this particular design. Nevertheless, a powerful performance. A wonderful concept, a great performance from the vast majority of the actors, and an aesthetically beautiful product.