Booking until Autumn 2014
Any director who puts a real-life, totally adorable little puppy into their production is very canny. The squeals and "awwws" reverberating around the audience were a sign of a very happy audience indeed. Yet this adaptation of Mark Haddon's award-winning novel doesn't need to rely on gimmicks or fluffy animals; this is a stellar production packed with terrific – and totally believable – performances, genius stagecraft and affectionate warmth.
Coverage of the show has focused a great deal on the lead performance of Luke Treadaway as fifteen-year-old Christopher. In this instance, the hype is most definitely justified. Treadaway – who, at the age of twenty-eight, becomes a surprisingly credible teenager – has perfected his role, which he delivers with intelligence and sensitivity that never seeks to romanticise or trivialise his character's situation. He doesn't hold back on the details in portraying the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome. The scene in which Ed (Christopher's father) must remove his son's vomit-covered clothes is touching in its care and delicacy, and well-judged in length: by not rushing through it, the painstaking processes which this level of care can involve were poignantly played out. Similarly, the detail with which Treadaway imbues the role is excellent, with habits such as scratching his head or playing with his hoodie ties, using small actions to create a rounded and believable depiction. Treadaway may be playing a young character, but he takes a mature approach to the role, exploring its depths and also its humour – the dialogue is often laugh-out-loud funny and Treadaway's puzzled seriousness is entertaining, whilst always ensuring that nobody was laughing at Asperger's. The performance treads that careful line of humour and respect, of comedy and sensitivity. There is truth and warmth in it, and it never threatens to be disrespectful. The Olivier award for best actor could not have found a more deserving recipient.
|Luke Treadaway - credit: Festival Du Film Britannique de Dinard 2011|
Yet as praise is heaped upon Luke Treadaway, it's important to remember this is not a one-man show. Many of the cast take on a range of small parts, proving adept at shifting from role to role, accent to accent. Niamh Cusack drives the show forward as she reads Christopher's account of the story and oversees the putting on of his 'play' – the play, of course, which we are currently watching. This allows for some comic moments where characters, and most of all pedantic 'director' Christopher, apparently step out of their role in the retelling, yet remain in character as far as the audience is concerned. Although Cusack's is the least flashy role, hers is a performance to reflect on. She is probably the only person in the play who really 'gets' Christopher, yet this is never explicitly discussed: it doesn't have to be, as we gradually realise the importance of her quiet but vital support.
In turn, this highlights the troubled journey of parents Ed and Judy who, despite their deep love, sometimes struggle to understand – and to cope with – their son's emotions and decisions. Most impressive is the bravery of author Mark Haddon and playwright Simon Stephens who do not shy away from the real difficulties of bringing up a child with Asperger's. Although things are certainly looking up by the curtain call, there is no perfect 'happy ever after' ending, and this refusal to gloss over the hardships is rewarded with brilliant performances from Seán Gleeson and Holly Aird – particularly the latter, whose portrayal of a mother who could not cope with what life threw at her is bravely honest and at times heart-wrenching.
The performances in this production would on their own create an inspiring, moving and truly fantastic play. But it is the staging that adds that touch of magic. Everything is actually pretty simple, but the way it works is absolute genius. From Christopher's dreams of being an astronaut, to the creation of a hectic Paddington station with a relatively small cast, to the set-up of an extensive train set across the stage, Christopher's world is evoked through his eyes with impressive skill and imagination. A broad smile spread across my face at the appearance of an 'escalator' on the back wall of the stage, as the creative team exceeded my expectations once again by a country mile. Everything worked in harmony faultlessly: a rare achievement.
It's hard to praise this show enough: every element comes together to produce a truly wonderful evening of theatre, and proves once again what a gem the National Theatre is in the crown of London theatre. If this is anything to go by, it is a real shame that Marianne Elliott has ruled herself out of the running of artistic director, because her creation here is a true triumph. The atmosphere of delight as Luke Treadaway delivered the epilogue and confetti fluttered to the floor of the Apollo was something special.