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Curious Incident: From in-the-round to around the world

Luke Treadaway in Curious Incident at the Apollo Theatre, London. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg
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When the National Theatre’s West End production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time closes its doors on June 3, it will have been the Gielgud Theatre’s longest-running play for nearly half a century. It will have played more than 1,600 shows and been watched by one million people in London, as well as nearly 2.5 million worldwide.

Since opening in the West End at the Apollo Theatre in early 2013, Curious Incident has won five Tony awards on Broadway and is currently on its second UK and first US tour. Before it began conquering the world, the show had already won in a record-breaking seven categories at the 2013 Oliviers, including best director and best actor awards for Marianne Elliott and Luke Treadaway, the original Christopher (the show’s lead role). It’s the National’s second highest grossing production after War Horse.

During its West End run, Curious Incident has seen five Christophers and launched numerous careers. Treadaway has starred in TV shows such as Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude and was recently back in the West End with James Macdonald’s acclaimed revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Pearl Mackie, who plays Doctor Who’s latest companion, was cast while she was in Curious Incident.

Pearl Mackie: ‘People might not know I’ve done lots of theatre before, Doctor Who was the anomaly for me’

Christopher, the play’s 15-year-old hero, has travelled a long way. But his journey into the West End, as originally conceived, could have been quite different.

Lisa Burger, the National’s current executive director, was involved in Curious Incident’s transfer from the National’s Cottesloe Theatre (now the Dorfman). Following the show’s critical and commercial success, “this was clearly one we wanted to get to many more people,” she says, reinforced by the popularity of an NT Live screening. “But our first thought was to find a non-traditional space.”

Writer Simon Stephens on the set of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo: Alex Rumford

When Simon Stephens first approached director (and friend) Elliott with his adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel, “I knew I loved it. It was very visceral and emotional,” she recalls. “But I had no idea how you’d do it.” How could Christopher’s experiences, informed by his Asperger’s, be translated into a stage language? Key to Elliott’s solution, after she agreed to direct Curious Incident, was to put the show in-the-round. “I instinctively felt that the audience was part of Christopher’s world.”

And that was how Curious Incident played at the Cottesloe and why the show’s producers initially looked for somewhere in the West End that would fit the same configuration. However, when it proved difficult to find a non-traditional space that would support the rest of the show’s infrastructure, the creative team went back to the drawing board. If staging Curious Incident in-the-round had been central to the production’s DNA, could it work any other way?

Necessity turned out to be the mother of invention, as designer Bunny Christie explains. The prospect of going into a proscenium arch West End theatre, with walls to the set, “gave me opportunities to develop the visual excitement of the piece in a new way”. While games and fourth-wall breaks kept the sense of audience involvement, at the same time, Christopher could ‘walk’ on the walls to represent his moments of disorientation.

“We thought, if this space is his brain, and it’s a box, and there are lots of boxes on stage, why don’t we make it a proper box?” says Elliott. “Then we can flip the logic of what is the floor and what is the ceiling.” In the end, this reconceptualisation worked so well, and made the show’s projected elements look even better, that it gave the creative team the confidence to take it to Broadway and on tour.

Curious Incident closed at the Cottesloe in October 2012, before opening at the Apollo (with its original cast) in March the next year. “We transferred it wholly on our own,” says Burger. “There were no other investors involved, which I think speaks for itself.” Like War Horse before it – another National production directed by Elliott and starring Treadway – the transfer was a hit, including with teenagers. “War Horse did a lot of that,” says Burger, “but Curious connected with a slightly older audience in that way as well, which is a difficult one to reach.”


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

July 2012  National Theatre production begins previews at the Cottesloe (now Dorfman) Theatre

September 2012 Broadcast as part of NT Live

October 2012 Cottesloe production closes

March 2013 Opens in the West End at the Apollo Theatre

April 2013 Wins record-breaking seven Olivier awards (best new play, best director, best actor, best actress in a supporting role, best sound design, best lighting design, best set design)

December 2013 Apollo Theatre ceiling collapses

June 2014 Reopens in the West End at the Gielgud Theatre (after playing eight free performances in Stratford’s Old Town Hall, as part of Newham Council’s Every Child a Theatre Goer campaign)

September 2014 Opens on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

November 2014-November 2015 First UK tour

June 2015 Wins five Tony awards (best play, best direction of a play, best lighting design of a play, best scenic design of a play, best performance by an actor in a leading role in a play)

September 2016 Broadway production closes

September 2016-September 2017 First US tour

January-September 2017 Second UK tour

June 2017 West End production closes

In June 2013, Curious Incident was one of the first West End shows – in association with the Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts, the Society of London Theatre and the Theatrical Management Association – to pilot ‘relaxed’ performances, in which certain aspects of a production are modified to the needs of people with autism and learning disabilities.

In September 2013, a new cast took over, with Mike Noble replacing Treadaway as Christopher. The show continued successfully for three months, until disaster struck on December 19, 2013, when part of the Apollo Theatre’s ceiling collapsed during a performance. Curious Incident – with its current company of actors and the next recast already engaged – was homeless.

On December 27, Burger remembers, “we were all here [at the National] trying to work out how we could put it on somewhere else”.

Thankfully, the show found a place further up Shaftesbury Avenue, at the Gielgud Theatre. But before it took up residence in June 2014, Curious Incident temporarily migrated to a very different venue: the Old Town Hall in Stratford. As part of Newham Council’s Every Child a Theatre Goer campaign, it played eight free performances for schoolkids. Even stripped back to a rehearsal-room format, “that audience was completely captivated” by the show, recalls Burger. “It just said to you: ‘This is a wonderful piece of work.’ ”

Curious Incident has gone on to play to packed houses at the Gielgud. As it prepares to close in the West End, what has accounted for its enduring popularity?

Stephens lays much praise at Elliott’s door. “What’s exceptional about her,” he says, “is her capacity to synthesise direction of the highest order with a sense of democracy – with wanting to tell stories to audiences that aren’t necessarily carved out of a regular theatregoing culture.”

Director Marianne Elliott. Photo: Helen Maybanks

For Paule Constable, the show’s lighting designer, its uniqueness plays a big role. “[Like War Horse], it is doing something that TV and cinema could never do. Watching those shows in an auditorium doesn’t feel like watching a poor relative. It’s celebrating what theatre can do.”

Elliott also sees the story’s universality as key. “It’s about growing up and triumphing over adversity,” she says. “It’s also about parenting and families.”

And what of Curious Incident’s legacy in the West End? Its success has helped to evolve industry views of what commercial theatre could be. From Frantic Assembly’s movement direction to Finn Ross’ video designs, it was a breath of fresh air, powered by talent born in the subsidised sector. It has demonstrated that there are audiences for more than just jukebox musicals and revivals.

Stephens points to Matilda the Musical and several of the acclaimed West End hits to have followed Curious Incident, such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. “It’s theatre that’s made by people who learned their craft in the subsidised sector, speaking with slightly more open lungs.”

Smart commercial producers, Stephens also believes, “are starting to get a sense that great shows – ones that will run for years – are built on trust rather than avarice”. It’s no surprise, then, that teamwork features highly in the creative team’s memories of working on Curious Incident. “It felt nice, supportive and generous,” says Christie.

Constable sees the results of collaborating with Elliott and Christie on the show as “celebrating how we work together”. She was pleased to be a female lighting designer working on a high-profile project. “Anything I can do to raise the profile of women in the area of my industry is a good thing.”

Curious Incident continues to play a role in the lives of its original creative team. “People want you to talk about it,” says Constable. “You get invited to all sorts of interesting events.” Last year, Elliott and Chris Harper, the show’s producer at the National, set up their own theatre company. She and Constable have also recently worked together on the National’s production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

“It’s amazing that it was four years ago,” says Treadaway wonderingly, of the last time he played Christopher in Curious Incident. “It has never really left me,” he continues, “knowing that it’s still on and seeing that it’s opening in another country.” It’s a role he describes as having pushed him to his “furthest limit” as an actor.

“It was theatre at its most electric and alive,” he muses. “When you go to see a play, so often, it’s like things you’ve seen before. This was unlike anything I’d seen before.”

Profile: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Venue: Gielgud Theatre
City: London
Started: June 24, 2014
Ends: June 3, 2017
Authors: Simon Stephens, adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon
Director: Marianne Elliott
Designer: Bunny Christie
Lighting: Paule Constable
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Video: Finn Ross
Producer: National Theatre
Production budget: £115,000 for original Cottesloe production

Farewell to the West End, a discussion platform bringing together the original creative team of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, will be held on June 1 at the Gielgud Theatre, London. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time continues its UK and US tours

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