An immersive insight into autism spectrum disorder

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Theatre Royal, Nottingham (Director: Marianne Elliott); reviewed by Stacey A. Bedwell.

Having read the original award-winning novel by Mark Haddon several years ago as a psychology undergraduate, I was eager to see the stage adaptation as a more mature and experienced neuropsychologist. I attended the show at Theatre Royal in Nottingham in April with a friend of mine, Francesca Williams, a clinical psychologist in training at the University of Nottingham. Neither I nor Francesca knew what to expect and entered the theatre with open minds.

From the very outset the play surprised me on multiple levels. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is a mystery story with a twist, it follows a teenage boy with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as he struggles to deal with changes in his home life whilst simultaneously dealing with difficult social interactions.

The aspect of the play I was most impressed with was how immersive the cast made the experience. It is a great challenge to convey on stage how certain social situations may be experienced by a character living with social-cognitive deficits. Adapted for stage by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliott, both have done a remarkable job at expressing the distress the main character, Christopher, was experiencing throughout different scenes. The additional and impressive uses of physical theatre really added to the portrayal of feelings and the immersive nature of the performance. There was an equally impressive use of the quite simple set to create extremely effective scenes. (This did involve a large amount of loud noises and flashing lights, which we don’t recall being warned about prior to the play beginning.)

From the perspective of a psychologist, I feel that the stage adaptation of Haddon’s bestselling novel gives a general audience a rare chance to be immersed into the world of someone living with ASD, without being at all clinical or academic in content. As with portrayals of any neurological deficit or psychological disorder, it would have been easy to make the audience feel sorry for the main character or his on-stage family. However, the cast and crew manage to tell the story in such a light-hearted, but still emotional, way that the audience are left both educated and entertained. With the inclusion of several incidents of ‘breaking the fourth wall’, whereby the cast members engaged directly with the audience, there were plenty of opportunities for laughter in what could easily have been presented as a much more serious story.

Overall, I found the stage experience of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time a totally different one to reading the novel. Perhaps due to narrative differences between print and live acting, I felt that the dialogue came across as much more angry in the play, which resulted in a more tense story and possibly a different outlook as to how the different characters experienced living with ASD

The play is on tour – see www.curiousonstage.com/global. Also see http://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-27/edition-10/eye-fiction-generic-images-autism

- Reviewed by Stacey A. Bedwell, Postdoctoral Researcher in Psychology, Nottingham Trent University

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