Page to stage

As Simon Stephen's adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time returns, he speaks to Nick Ahad.

The thing that I most admire about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is, perhaps, just how incredibly unlikely it all is.

A book about a boy with autism, the betting was maybe on it appealing only to a limited audience and yet the Mark Haddon novel, released in 2003, sold millions around the world.

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It was perhaps the first book of the millennium not written by JK Rowling to appeal to an audience of adolescents, children and adults simultaneously.

It was even published in different editions to appeal to two different age ranges.

Set largely inside the the head of a teenage boy, it is the kind of story that can only really live in novel form. In theory.

In 2012 the National Theatre premiered a stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time written by Simon Stephens.

No way should this have worked. But then, this was the theatre that somehow turned a novel set inside the head of a First World War horse into a stage play – if anyone could make it work, the National Theatre stood the best of all chances.

Fast forward a couple of years, several Olivier and Tony award wins later and it is fair to say the theatre took the chance and really did make the production work and then some.

Having toured the country for the past couple of years, the stage version of Curious Incident, as it is referred to by those in the theatre industry, is coming back to Sheffield and Bradford this summer.

As the show winds to a close in the West End next month, the production arriving in Yorkshire is the best chance audiences have of seeing this extraordinary piece of theatre.

“We’re coming to a close in the West End and there was an event to commemorate it coming to an end when everyone who was involved in the original production was invited to a special performance.

“I expected a few people to come along, but every single member of the original production was there. I think that says a lot about how remarkable it is,” says Simon Stephens.

The playwright is the man who was tasked with the seemingly impossible: turning the Mark Haddon book about a 15-year-old boy with autism (or Asperger’s: it’s never fully explained) into a compelling story for the stage.

“I’m used to my plays being performed for four weeks in theatres that seat 100, so to sit in an audience of over 1,000 and experience this production with them is something really quite incredible,” he says.

Stephens is best known for insightful, intimate works that explore the state of the nation and pack a punch.

Work like Punk Rock and his early play Herons are powerful pieces, but in terms of scale they are tiny compared to Curious Incident.

The University of York-educated Stephens was, coincidentally, already a friend of the author of Curious Incident Mark Haddon, before he was asked to write the stage version of his play.

“I love Mark Haddon,” says Stephens, without much prompting.

“I love his remarkable mind and our remarkable friendship and I can’t talk about the play without thinking about him.

“When I first read the book, long before there was any discussion of me adapting it, I remember thinking ‘I wonder what the dad looks like and I wonder what the teacher looks like’. It all felt very visual to me.”

Which turned out to be incredibly useful. If you haven’t seen the production yet (it was at Leeds Grand earlier this year and has toured to Yorkshire previously) it is a little difficult to explain.

While the set is little more than an empty shell of a box, it becomes filled courtesy of the imagination of Christopher, the story’s hero. The design is deliberately sparse, with the floor and walls of the set a blank onto which something akin to graph paper is projected. On top of this there is often the projection of other images, conjured up by Christopher’s particular and peculiar brain.

While Simon Stephens’s name is the one on the banner as the man who provided the script, he has always been quick to remind that Curious Incident is a good example of the collaborative nature of theatre. It began with Haddon’s book from which the script was born, but since that point many other creatives have had their input.

Acclaimed designer Bunny Christie is responsible for the quite extraordinary set and director Marianne Elliott is credited as one of the real driving forces behind this piece. Having created magic with War Horse at the National, she seemed the right person to tackle this piece.

“In a way I felt very little sense of pressure with this,” says Stephens.

“It is an incredible team and Mark’s story is already so beautifully told. Even though people often say it feels like a book that can’t be adapted for the stage, even when I was reading I was thinking that I would love to see it played out in a theatre, on the stage. It has turned out to be a really quite joyful piece of work.”

There is also, as the production in the West End comes to a close, an ancillary benefit Stephens has experienced by being attached to this project.“It’s been wonderful to have something on at a theatre that my children can actually come and see.”

At Sheffield Lyceum May 9-20 and Bradford Alhambra, July 31 to August 5.

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Published in 2003, unusually simultaneously in separate children’s and adults’ editions, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon tells the story of 15-year-old Christopher Boone, who has an extraordinary brain; is exceptional at maths but ill-equipped to interpret everyday life. He sets out to solve the mystery of who killed his neighbour’s dog, but it takes him on a frightening journey that turns his world upside down.

The novel won Whitbread Awards for Best Novel and Book of the Year, a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize.