It is after the interval that one realises what drew Simon Stephens to adapting Mark Haddon’s acclaimed novel for the stage. Certainly, Stephens’ fondness for portraying folk unable to communicate with each other all but finds its apotheosis when considering Haddon’s teenage autistic-spectrum protagonist Christopher – but much of the first half is, in its way, charming. We find an appeal in Christopher’s directness, and the fact that most of his interactions are with familiar people – principally his father and his teacher Siobhan (strong performances from Seán Gleeson and Niamh Cusack respectively) – means that we see few instances of distress.
But, having discovered that his mother is not dead but rather living in Willesden, north London, Christopher resolves to travel there from his home in Swindon, southwest England. The journey, the seething metropolis, and his stay with his mother and her lover constitute a succession of noisy and alien incidents in which no one connects with anyone else (except in obligatory Frantic Assembly movement sequences) and Christopher in particular cannot even articulate his own condition. This is prime Stephens territory.
Frequent Stephens collaborator Marianne Elliott’s production premiered last summer in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe space, where it was staged in the round. Moving it into the proscenium-arch space of the Apollo, with nearly three times the seating capacity, has entailed a rethink: what had been the central playing area now becomes a cube onstage, with back and side walls as well as floor covered with a graph-paper design (for Christopher, almost inevitably, is a mathematical savant). This works in the show’s favour, reducing the impression of faux-intimacy and introducing a physical distance from Christopher to match the emotional one.
Despite the distance, Luke Treadaway’s central performance remains disarming: his Christopher is clearly a boy apart, but there is a fluidity to the portrayal of his Aspergic prissiness that verges on a kind of camp. We almost certainly could not live with Christopher, but we are happy to spend a few hours in his company. Stephens even includes some uncharacteristic coy self-referentiality about adapting Christopher’s book for the stage. And this is without doubt the only show in the current West End to feature a demonstration of a mathematical proof performed as an encore.