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Understanding The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a play adapted from Mark Haddon’s bestselling book from 2003, and was first performed at the National Theatre, London in 2012. Due to its huge popularity, it has since become a regular fixture on the West End in London, and was also a big hit on Broadway in New York.

The title is a reference to a Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of Silver Blaze. In it, Holmes mentions “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” noting a dog that didn’t bark because it recognised the criminal. Christopher, similarly, deduces that the person who killed Mrs Shears’s dog was someone known to her.

Although it is never actually stated in the book or the play, it is widely assumed that the character of Christopher has Asperger’s Syndrome. This is a form of autism that makes understanding social cues, like body language, humour or metaphors, challenging. Young people with the condition can often fixate obsessively on specific topics.

Plot Summary

The play follows the adventures of Christopher, a 15-year-old boy with exceptional mathematic ability who finds “people confusing”. After discovering that his neighbour’s dog has been killed with a garden fork, he decides – against his father’s advice – to play detective and investigate the murder.

He has been told by his father, Ed, that his mother, Judy, died two years previously. However, he discovers that this was a lie. In fact, Judy had an affair with their neighbour, Mr Shears, and she is alive, living in London.

Wanting to give Christopher the whole truth, Ed admits that it was he who killed the dog. This was after having an argument with the dog’s owner, Mrs Shears, whom he had been in a relationship with.

Feeling betrayed and no longer safe living at home, Christopher runs away, travelling from Swindon to London to find his mother.

After an adventurous journey, Christopher reaches his mother’s home. He stays with her for a period, but soon expresses a desire to return to Swindon to sit for his A-level maths exams. Although his mother Judy is initially against this, her stance changes when Mr. Shears assaults Christopher. This prompts her to accompany him back to Swindon.

Christopher settles into a life of shared custody between his parents, and eventually learns to trust his father again. He achieves an A* on his maths A-level, and develops a greater sense of confidence and independence. This is due to successfully navigating the many challenges life threw at him.

Setting

Part One is all set in Swindon, and there are only three different settings, reflecting the rigidly routine-led life that Christopher leads. These settings are:

  • His school, where Christopher talks to Siobhan, and she reads his book
  • His home, which he shares with his father, and finds the letters from his mother
  • His street, where Christopher discovers the dead dog, and interviews neighbours as part of his investigation

In Part Two, he travels to London, and the variety of settings illustrates the adventurous journey that he goes on to find his mother, breaking his normal habits and dependencies in the process. As well as those mentioned above, the settings include:

  • The street near Swindon train station
  • The ticketing office in the station
  • The platform of the station
  • The train
  • The London train station
  • The tube platform
  • The tube
  • The newsagents
  • Outside Judy and Roger’s flat
  • Inside Judy and Roger’s flat

Genre of the Play

The play could fit into different genre categories:

GenreExplanation
Murder mysteryInspired by his love of Sherlock Holmes stories, Christopher’s investigation into the murder of Wellington, his neighbour’s dog, is the focus of the first half of the play.

This part of the story features elements typical of a murder mystery, such as following clues and identifying suspects. There is also a twist ending (of Part One) about the murderer’s identity
Family dramaThe story revolves around the fallout from Christopher’s mother’s affair with a neighbour, Mr Shears, and the breakdown of his parents’ marriage.

There are lies, betrayals and shocking revelations that he struggles to cope with, but the end of the play sees him reunited with his mother and reconciled with his father.
Coming-of-Age Story (Bildungsroman)The arc of the story is Christopher’s growth from lacking confidence and living a narrow life to becoming much more independent and feeling that he can do anything he wants.

With his newfound confidence, he can plan for the future and take his first steps towards adulthood and a life without dependency on his parents or teachers.

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