It has sold more than 10m copies but The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was supposed to be the book they couldn’t adapt for the stage. It was too quirky, too personal, too much in the head of its main character, 15-year-old Christopher Boone.
Well, a few weeks ago I saw the National Theatre production of the ‘show they couldn’t adapt’ in London’s West End, where it is now happily ensconced, and have seldom been so impressed or moved.
You have to take your hat off to the people who drive our creative industries. No wonder they make us millions and are the envy of the world. This show, which recently opened triumphantly on Broadway, is the realisation of the damn-near impossible and pure theatrical genius. And I do use superlatives sparingly as a rule.
Before seeing the show at the Gielgud Theatre – across the road from the Apollo where part of the ceiling collapsed on it a year ago – I was privileged to sit in on a rehearsal for the new touring production which will come to Newcastle Theatre Royal in January.
Here in the bowels of the National Theatre – a ‘concrete bunker’ for which I feel a strange affection – I saw a new cast getting to grips with a show which might surprise you.
Christopher sees the world differently to many of us and is assumed to have Asperger syndrome (one of the disorders on the autism spectrum), although it isn’t stated explicitly on page or stage.
What we get is a Christopher’s eye view of the world where maths is easy, crowds equate to information-overload, only literal language makes sense (so no ‘pig of a day’ or ‘keep your eye on it’) and a neighbour’s dead dog is a puzzle within a puzzle.
The book, both popular and thought-provoking, is admired for its writing and its hugely original story.
The stage play is about as physical a thing as I have ever seen, involving its cast – not all in the first flush of youth – in a lot of lifting and carrying.
Christopher imagines he can fly through space and his imagination is set free, thanks to the kind of choreographed muscle-power than the new touring cast was getting to grips with.
They were all sweating and grunting a bit. There was applause when Christopher’s panic in an Underground train, expressed as a physical tumble along a line of actors, was done successfully for the first time.
Producer Chris Harper told us: “This is a play we are so passionate about. It recently reopened in the West End and just opened on Broadway. You are getting the production almost direct from Broadway.
“The great thing about this play is not only is it an extraordinary journey you go on, but it gets the National Theatre to be genuinely national. We are so thrilled to be going to so many venues over the course of a year.”
It must be nice to be heading off to more than 30 theatres with something you know is this good.
Playwright Simon Stephens related a long and very curious tale about how he came to embark on the task of adapting Mark Haddon’s acclaimed novel in the first place.
“It started here in the National Theatre in 2007, when Mark was on attachment and I was writing a play, and I remarked about the terrible coffee in the coffee machine.
“We struck up a conversation and it became a friendship. We found we were of similar age, both fathers and with similar taste in music and observations about life.
“If I was to say just one thing to you it’s that I didn’t write this play as a commission. I wasn’t paid to write this play. It was never an aspiration that this would be a play that would go to the West End or Broadway or have this remarkable opportunity of touring the country.
“It was just done out of a spirit of friendship and as a sort of exercise.
“Mark had been approached, he tells me, a hundred times for the stage rights and had turned every applicant down.
“He was finally approached by the producers of Godspell to see if they could have the rights and it made him face up to the realisation that one day, inevitably, someone would produce it on stage.”
The project was entrusted to Stephens who said he was flattered but would not accept a commission. He would “have a go” at turning a complicated story into something stage-friendly.
“I’d read the book in 2004 and fell in love with it but I said, ‘I want the right to say this is completely unstageable’.
“To me, this is not a play about autism or a boy with Asperger syndrome. It’s a play about family and about raising children and about a boy who sees the world in a remarkable way and is not defeated by his particular personality or characteristics.”
The playwright recalled that while he was working on his adaptation, someone leaned across to him in the National Theatre cafe and said: “You do realise it’s the nation’s favourite book?”
Said Stephens: “I hadn’t thought of it until then. I wasn’t thinking about the National Theatre or Broadway or taking it across the UK. I was thinking about how to tell Christopher’s story.”
But the National Theatre embraced the project and engaged War Horse director Marianne Elliott – “one of the best directors in Europe,” according to Stephens.
Physical theatre company Frantic Assembly was brought in to work on the production and it was Scott Graham, founder member and artistic director, who was putting the cast through their paces in this rehearsal.
This was a show, he explained, which really did begin with a group hug among the cast and involved a ‘boot camp’ approach.
“They can be a little bit scared to start with,” he said. “It’s important to jump straight in and make sure everyone is comfortable about getting their hands on each other.
“You want them to get swept up in it before they’ve got time to think about it.
“It’s about not getting involved in conversations about what people can or can’t do because most people are actually a bit stronger than they think they are.”
Rather than conventional one-on-one auditions, there had been a ‘workshop audition’. “You can hide behind a performance but we were looking for openness, honesty and bravery. You have to be brave to do this show.”
That much had already become evident from watching Joshua Jenkins, as Christopher, being safely hoisted and passed from fellow actor to fellow actor, all working as a well-drilled team.
Katy Rudd, assistant director on the original production and at the helm of the touring version, recalled the excitement generated by the very first read-through of the play when there was a realisation that “this really, really works”.
She recalled that the play was to have been set in a sports hall until designer Bunny Christie had had “a brainwave”, deciding instead to create “a techy place like a gym for the brain” in which the action would unfold.
The set, I can tell you, is as important as the actors. It represents the externalisation of Christopher’s thoughts, lighting up in different ways and even closing in on him when he becomes claustrophobic.
When I was in London the set was being adapted for the tour, the next step for a production which started off being performed ‘in the round’ at the National Theatre and was forced to swap West End theatres after that ceiling collapse.
So much effort, passion and dedication invested... and to what fabulous end! Do treat yourself and see this when it comes our way. It will put a lump in your throat.
The national tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time brings it to Newcastle Theatre Royal from January 27 to February 7 (box office: 08448 112121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk) and Sunderland Empire from August 11-15.