NT Live is a glorious, glorious thing. For the fraction of the price of a normal ticket, one can go to the Dendy and see a live (or nearly live) broadcast of the best productions the UK National Theatre has to offer (which is to say, some of the best in the world). What's more, you get to see them from the best possible angles, and you get to sit in comfy cinema seating with your drink and choc-top. You also get a bit of a pre-theatre talk, credits, and even an interval in which to refresh your glass of bubbles. If you could buy a programme it would be practically perfect. Sod the sunshine, this is how I like to spend a weekend afternoon!
Mark Haddon's Whitbread-award-winning novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is one of my favourite books (as one might expect, with the title referencing one of my favourite stories). But I was curious to see how dramaturge Simon Stephens would translate it to the stage, with some challenging logistics (such as a seminal train trip from Swindon to Wilston) and, more importantly, a narrative told in a peculiarly introspective fashion, in the first person POV of Christopher, a 15 year-old autistic boy (a heart-stopping, wonderful performance by Luke Treadaway), who has discovered his neighbour's dog "murdered" with a garden fork, and sets out to uncover the killer.
When done well, the device of the "unreliable narrator" in fiction is one of my favourite things. But how do you translate that to stage, when you only have the boy's actions to observe, and can't connect the dots of the internal monologue?
As it turns out quite well, by having the boy's story read back to him by the schoolteacher Siobhan (the warm and persuasive Niamh Cusack), an excellent device which allows her to stop and engage with Christopher about what he means by the words he's written. The script is a very faithful translation of the original novel; my only tiny kvetch is that a couple of deeply moving scenes in the book are portrayed nearly casually here - a character in Act Two reaches out to Christopher who is entirely unable to appreciate what that means to her; in the book this almost broke my heart, in the play it seems almost brushed aside. But these exceptions are rare.
The cast is outstanding - well, of course it is, it's the NT. There's no point in singling out anyone apart from Treadaway, because every performance, from veteran Una Stubbs to an extra eating a chocolate biscuit, is pitch perfect. But if there is another star in this production, it's the set, an electronic grid by Bunny Christie which is also a chalkboard, and which serves brilliantly as everything from an escalator to the seats of a railway carriage), supplemented by Paule Constable's exceptional lighting design. The in-the-round, steeply raked seating of the Cottesloe Theatre means that on occasions the actors can lie on the floor against patterns on the grid, and form an aerial picture (wonderful movement direction from Scott Graham & Steven Hoggett) - very clever, but something likely to be very difficult to replicate in other venues. It's also where NT Live really shines, because you could not get a view this good from any single spot in the actual theatre (I felt it was a bit of a cheat, to be honest, to be able to view this from so many angles when the live audience could not).
There's a slight mawkishness at the end, but it brings the optimism that's needed - and make sure you stay on after the curtain call for an extra treat, especially if you're mathematically minded. I'd love to see this live in a theatre if it ever tours Australia, and I'll be fascinated to see whether the design can be replicated in a venue other than the Cottesloe.