As The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time heads for Newcastle, DAVID WHETSTONE renews acquaintance with actor Joshua Jenkins
The first time I spoke to Joshua Jenkins he had just been tossed around like a beanbag by other actors rehearsing for the new national tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Actually, that doesn’t give quite the right impression. Joshua, although light on his feet and certainly no heavyweight, was being manhandled by other actors in a way that looked uncomfortable and even a little risky.
In a rehearsal room in the bowels of the National Theatre, the actors – all ages and shapes and sizes – were tackling a new routine that would become integral to the touring version of a show which had already been a big hit at the National and in the West End.
Holding my breath and muscles (such as they are) twitching in sympathy, I was present when a complicated and physically demanding manoeuvre was successfully completed for the first time.
It merited a round of applause from all those watching, including movement director Scott Graham from physical theatre company Frantic Assembly which helped to bring this challenging production to the stage.
Joshua well remembers that day, when journalists were present to witness the extraordinary exertions of the cast.
“That was a week and a half into rehearsals,” said Joshua when I caught up with him again the other day, by phone this time.
“I certainly feel a lot fitter than when I last spoke to you. It has been a growing process really, very busy and full on... long hours. And we’ve only been to The Lowry before our first night in Hull yesterday.”
As if thinking that sounded a trifle world-weary, the actor – 27 and originally from Swansea – added hastily that the Salford theatre had been a wonderful place to work.
It was just that with technical rehearsals throughout the day and performances at night, the stamina had been tested.
“It has been very, very rewarding because the audiences have been really enjoying it. Apparently, at the Lowry, we had the biggest audience ever for ‘Curious’ – about 1,700, which is really good.”
They won’t top that in Newcastle, where this extraordinary show takes up residence next week, because the Theatre Royal doesn’t seat more than 1,200. But it will be astonishing if the reception is anything less than rousing.
“I’m really looking forward to coming to Newcastle because I’ve never been there before,” said Joshua and I wouldn’t doubt his sincerity.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is the stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s enormously successful novel about a 15-year-old boy called Christopher Boone.
We understand – as readers – that he sees the world differently to most other people, although it does make you think that we probably all view the world uniquely.
Christopher, though, is assumed to be on the autism spectrum and this seems clear enough in the play.
The boy is brilliant at maths but literal-minded – phrases like ‘apple of my eye’ mean nothing to him – and he can’t tell a lie, which is no aid to survival in a cynical world.
He is vulnerable to sensory overload so on a journey by train and Underground is paralysed and unnerved by the amount of information being hurled at him.
Having seen the West End version of the play after interviewing Joshua and his fellow actors, I can say that you are likely to find his plight intensely moving.
People at the National Theatre had no idea if Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel would become a successful stage show – or even if it could be staged at all.
But the problems it presented were overcome brilliantly. In fact, since every venue has been different (and in one case, in London at the end of 2013, part of the theatre ceiling came down on the show) some of the problems have to be solved repeatedly.
With the show hailed as a triumph in London, it was inevitable that news of a tour would bring no shortage of actors wishing to audition.
One of them was Joshua, up for the part of Christopher.
“My agent put me forward for it. I’d never seen the play before although I’d read the book and loved it and I’d heard amazing things about the production in the West End.
“I thought: absolutely I’d like to go for it. Then I had a gruelling four auditions, one of which was a movement workshop which I was far too unfit for but managed to get through.
“After a couple of months I heard I’d got the part. I couldn’t believe it when my agent called me. Parts like this don’t come along too frequently for young actors.”
Joshua said he had thought “long and hard” about going to see the play in London but decided against it. “I wanted the rehearsal process to be as fresh and enjoyable as possible.”
In the truest sense of the word, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an ensemble piece. Every performer, as I witnessed during that London rehearsal, is a crucial part in a machine.
As audience members, we witness what goes on in Christopher’s head. When he imagines he’s an astronaut, he flies through space – but only with the strong arms of fellow cast members to support him.
It strikes me that you wouldn’t want to make enemies of your colleagues on a tour of this production.
All that said, audience sympathy is focused on Christopher and therefore the actor playing him.
It is a major challenge and, as Joshua reminded me, the applause only comes in the wake of the ‘boot camp’ all the cast were required to attend before proper rehearsals got under way. Fitness levels had to be bolstered and stamina and flexibility improved.
As I was reminded in London by associate director Katy Rudd, these are actors, not dancers.
The route to this demanding but high profile role began for Joshua back in Wales when he was growing up.
“When I was a kid, about 10, I enjoyed doing plays at school but I never really though acting was what I’d do professionally until I was about 15 and saw an episode of Rising Damp.
“I thought Leonard Rossiter (who played seedy landlord Rigsby in the 1970s ITV sitcom) was the best thing I’d ever seen and wanted to be an actor from that moment, or at least something to do with the business.
Joshua trained at “a wonderful college in Swansea” and then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. “I had a great three years there, got an agent and became an actor.
“I was very lucky because my first theatre job was at the RSC in a new play called Dunsinane, which is essentially Macbeth part two. I did some TV (appearances include Holby City, Doctors and Heartbeat) and then spent a full year at the RSC, doing King John and Richard III and spending a lot of time in Stratford.”
Probably none of this fully prepared him for the rigours of his current role, which will take him to 27 other theatres (culminating at Milton Keynes in November) after the Newcastle run.
It became clear after the first run of the play that the demands of playing Christopher night after night were too much for one actor. For two out of every seven performances, therefore, Joshua hands over the part to Chris Ashby, officially the “alternate Christopher”, a likeable 26-year-old from Leicester who has appeared on TV in New Tricks and Skins.
Joshua said he was aware that other actors had already excelled in the role he now plays. “I think you’re always aware and that has been the most challenging part of the job. You are aware there will be people on this tour who have seen other productions.
“You can’t allow yourself to ponder on it too much, though.”
Changing the subject, he said brightly: “I’ve heard the nightlife in Newcastle is fantastic so I’m really looking forward to going out for a drink with the cast.”
Most nights, of course, we’ll know where to find him.
* The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is at the Theatre Royal from January 27 until February 7. Box office: 08448 112121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk . The production also comes to Sunderland Empire from August 11-15.