This is an extraordinarily intelligent production of a play about extraordinary intelligence.

Mark Haddon’s funny and affecting Whitbread-winning 2003 novel topped the best-seller lists for a year and his first-person narrator, 15-year old maths savant Christopher Boone from Swindon, entered public consciousness as a sort of Harry Potter with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Christopher finds his neighbour’s dog skewered to the lawn with a garden fork and his boy-detective attempts to investigate the crime set off a chain reaction of events inside his own family. When he discovers how his father lied to him about the death of his mother, he embarks on a hazardous journey to London to track her down.

Christopher’s moral and physical journeys challenge our own perceptions of normality: faced with unfamiliar situations like buying a train ticket or blindly navigating his way through London highlight how much we take for granted our own ability to process information at speed. The book is such a shared introspection, a private and privileged insight into an ordered but closed world, and so very tenderly done that the last thing you consider when reading it is whether it would make a film or a play.

Bunny Christie’s ingenious set blows apart the supremely logical but sticky to handle cheese strings of Christopher’s imagination and maps his neural pathways on a cube of graph-paper grids kinetically throbbing with mathematical symbols and a hand-shielding-the-eyes array of lighting effects by the immensely talented Paule Constable, which simulate everything from the night sky over Swindon to a near-accident with an underground train.

Marianne Elliott’s staging is made even more compelling by Ian Dickinson’s sound design, by turns explosive, eerie and cacophonous, by Finn Ross’s super-smart video work and Frantic Assembly’s urgent gymnastic choreography which sometimes hems in Christopher and sometimes lifts him like a crowd-surfing champion. There’s a walking-on-walls moment which is quite simply breathtaking.

It’s hard to pick a fault: there’s a crude meta-theatrical device whereby Christopher’s story is narrated by his remedial teacher, who then encourages the class to stage it as a play. This feels a touch patronising and isn’t helped by Niamh Cusack’s overly bright characterization, although the rest of the acting ensemble are truly fine. The other misjudged moment is the introduction of a live puppy in the second act which as surely raises oohs and aahs from the audience as it severs the narrative artery of the play.

But defying criticism at the centre of this remarkable piece is an even more remarkable performance of such luminous intensity and drive that all stand in awe of it. Luke Treadaway has brought intensities of both physicality and speech to the embodiment of Christopher such that he seems to live the part, switching constantly between the flexed-finger twitching and bodily contorting, blending vehemence with measured pedantry in his speech, and painting painfully beautiful moments of vulnerability. Not only does he sustain this for the 2 hours 40 minutes of the play, he grabs the audience for a ten minute epilogue in which he raps the solution to one of his Maths A-Level questions. Olivier award, no question.

Date reviewed: Thursday 14th March 2013
Image © Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.