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Aisle View from London: A Curious and Altogether Astonishing Incident

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Six days in London bring the opportunity to catch up on seven shows that have opened since my last visit. I could have more industriously caught nine by juggling the schedule, but one does have other obligations.

The most astonishing piece of theatre I've seen of late, for sure, is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This National Theatre production, which transferred from its home base at the Cottesloe to the Apollo in March, has thrilled packed audiences since its inception and collected a Matilda-tying seven Olivier Awards in the spring. But universal critical and audience acclaim--accompanied by a raft of awards--doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to like it.

The play comes with a literary pedigree, being an adaptation of Mark Haddon's 2003 bestseller. This is decidedly beneficial to a serious drama, providing automatic name-recognition to a wide swath of ticket buyers. But this can be a negative, should the consensus be "it's not quite as good as that wonderful book." In this case, adaptor Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott have found a way to replicate the power of Haddon's novel while theatrically enhancing it.

If the name of the director sounds familiar on our side of the Atlantic, there is a good reason: War Horse. Elliott similarly took that book and brought it to the stage in an altogether wondrous production which opened at the National in 2007, enjoyed a nearly two-year run at Lincoln Center Theater in New York, and is still running strong at the New London Theatre.

War Horse was wondrous indeed, although some viewers seemed to think that its high theatricality compensated for a lack of literary distinction -- an opinion that I vociferously disagree with. Curious Incident is built on theatricality just as stunning, yes, but I don't expect many will question the power of the words.

Readers of the novel know that the central character is a teenager who is, as they term it in the publicity, "a math genius with behavioral problems." (Christopher, following one of his severe fits, notes that he is "sometimes difficult to control"). Said behavioral problems -- which culminate in violent physical/emotional shutdowns whenever he is touched -- make him an outcast in his own home, even. The action begins when he discovers the murdered dog of the title, speared with a pitchfork; he sets out to solve the mystery, and in a roundabout manner eventually does.

The play is now being performed by its second cast, led by Mike Noble as Christopher, Rakie Ayola as his teacher, Trevor Fox as his father, Amanda Drew as his mother, and Gay Soper as a friendly neighbor. All are excellent, but Noble is exceptional. This is a grueling role (and yes, a well-written role) in which the actor is required to rant, rave, emotionally strip himself naked and literally walk the walls while making us believe the character. We are told that Luke Treadaway--who won one of those seven Oliviers, and earlier created the hero Albert in War Horse--was excellent, but I found Noble superb. I don't recall having seen anything quite like this since Peter Firth in the original production of Equus.

As for the staging, astonishing is indeed the word. In War Horse, Ms. Elliott had all those actors and all those puppets and all that scenery; here we have ten people and a simple set dominated by walls of graph paper (which I suspect is not quite so simple as it looks). This plus tons of imagination from Elliott, designer Bunny Christie, lighting designer Paule Constable, video designer Finn Ross, sound designer Ian Dickinson, composer Adrian Sutton, and movement directors Scott Graham and Stephen Hoggett--all joined in a most remarkable collaboration.

They create innumerable visuals that are jawdroppingly perfect: a night-sky galaxy of stars; a deep red, exploding stage image composed of fibre-optics or light-emitting diodes, or something of the sort; a stunning sequence built upon a model train; a volcanic nightmare in the London Underground; a thoroughly remarkable escalator; and more. The peak, late in the second act, turns out to be the simplest: an emotional moment that literally brought forth hundreds of gasps from the crowd at the intimate, four-tiered Apollo.

Like War Horse, this one is certain to make the trip across the Atlantic sooner or later, hopefully sooner. It will fit perfectly into one of our smaller Broadway playhouses, and surely be embraced by American audiences for what should be an extended run. This Curious Incident entertains, uplifts, makes you think and makes you feel. And, in the most wondrous way, makes you wonder too.