We’ve seen two plays in February; a good start to our year in the theatre. Especially when you think that while I was working we hardly saw any for years!

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night
I read the book on which this play is based a long time ago and clearly recall loving it. I remembered it took you into the mind of an autistic boy and you felt after reading it, rightly or wrongly, that you had a much better understanding of this condition. The author, Mark Haddon had taught autistic children apparently. I also remembered that all of the clues that the boy uncovered came together at the end in a way that was quite satisfactory and credible given the boy, Christopher’s, condition and how he managed to find out exactly just what the incident of the dog was all about. Apart from that I couldn’t remember much and nor could I remember it when I re-read it. The novel unfolded as though completely new. It’s very good.

It’s also very cerebral, it’s almost entirely based around what is inside Christopher’s head. I was very interested to see how it translated to the stage. This was a collaboration between the Melbourne Theatre Company and the UK National Theatre. The playwright is Simon Stephens and it was the original UK National Theatre. It has received rave reviews around the world, including here in Melbourne.

The set was very modern; quite sparse. It looked a bit like a three sided rubrics cube (minus the colours). Which was appropriate given Christopher’s focus on mathematics at which he excels. This space readily transformed into Christopher’s home, his street and his school. And later on into railway stations and his Mother’s flat and neighbourhood in London.

For a story that involves only four main characters there were a lot of actors on stage for most of the time and I found it a bit confusing as to who was who. But the major figures were clear; Dad – Ed, Mum – Judy, the teacher – Siobhan, two of the neighbours. All of the acting was first rate and it was all very faithful to the book. You certainly feel great empathy for Christopher and admiration for his parents, father in particular and for his teacher.

The first Act set everything up nicely but I felt, during the second half, when Christopher embarks on a frightening for him, journey to London, frenetic action took over to the detriment of emotional engagement. The action became more frenetic in this part of the play as well. There was a lot of physically demanding acting required of the cast; for example Christopher being held up as he walked around the walls of the cube. And times when the action on stage was enhanced by dramatic lighting and video footage; for example when the crowd scenes in the London Tube were accompanied by video footage of trains zooming past.

The story telling was fast; perhaps a bit too fast for us to feel much sympathy for Christopher’s parents; in particular his father who bears the brunt of Christopher’s response to the resolution of the mystery. It was tough on his Dad; but in keeping with Christopher’s autism. I felt reading the book, and again seeing the play, how tough it would be not to be able to hug your child. Christopher can’t bear to be touched and the closest he will go is to have his palm meet yours. He’s also very particular about colours and good and bad omens. Joshua Jenkins who played Christopher on the night we went was very, very good. As were the three main adults; David Michaels as Dad, Julie Hale as Siobhan the teacher and Emma Beattie as the Mum.

Overall it was stimulating theatre; gives you plenty to think about, very inventive story telling and a highly enjoyable night. Culminating in the appearance of a puppy on stage!

Nina Simone: Liberian Days
This was by our friend, former politician, now well established as a playwright, Neil Cole. I loved it. I also really like the venue: Chapel off Chapel. Ruth Rodgers-Wright played Nina and she was fantastic. From Brixton in the UK and now a local here in Melbourne, she was Nina personified. Her singing was beautiful, soulful and sensual. So were her movements as she commanded the small stage, walking and dancing barefoot, occasionally coming up the central stairs to engage the audience. She was throughly credible in her spoken asides, telling snippets from Nina’s life, focussed on when she spent three years in Liberia but including bits about her life in America; abusive husband, friendship with Malcolm X etc.

It made me want to know more about her life. I was told that I should have seen Neil’s earlier play Nina Simone Black Diva Power that had two seasons in Melbourne and at the Edinburgh Festival in 2016. I’m sorry I missed it.

The two musicians accompanying Ms Rodgers-Wright were also terrific. Mark Fitzgibbon on piano and Mohamed Camara on drums and percussion. The music was really, really good. I was disappointed when it finished in the allotted time of 70 minutes.


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