The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: The show must go on

When the Apollo Theatre’s ceiling collapsed last year, its big production was left homeless. Now, it’s playing to a full house of rather surprised school children

Mike Noble remembers the night the house came down. It was shortly before the interval during The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The young actor plays Christopher Boone, the teenage protagonist of the award-winning production. During a flashback scene featuring the boy and his mother, the packed audience at the Apollo Theatre in the West End – which happened to include me – became distracted by cracking noises.

"As an actor, you can have two minds running on stage," Noble says, recalling the night of 19 December for the first time. "I was really involved in the scene but, at the same time, something in my brain was making up a story of what was happening. At first, I'm thinking someone's been taken ill, and, as they're leaving, there's a load of chairs going, 'buh-dum, buh-dum, buh-dum'."

Many in the audience assumed that the noise was part of the play's innovative soundtrack. But the actors, who had performed it more than 100 times, knew otherwise. The cracks lasted for no more than two seconds. "Then came a big crunch, and I saw the ceiling just collapse," Noble, 25, recalls. "I remember very little about that exact moment because you go into survival mode. I thought the building was coming down, and I ran."

Fire crews outside the Apollo Theatre following the balcony's collapse in December Fire crews outside the Apollo Theatre following the balcony's collapse in December A large section of ornate plasterwork had fallen from the ceiling of the Edwardian theatre in a deluge of dust and debris, taking with it parts of the balcony and a lighting rig. Almost 80 people were injured, six of them seriously. As insurers continue to assess a potentially very costly incident, a leaking roof remains the most likely cause.

For six weeks, the play has been homeless. But it returns this week in a very different setting. On Monday afternoon, seven miles east of The Apollo, more than 150 pupils from schools in Newham, one of the most deprived boroughs in the country, file into Stratford Old Town Hall. The historic room, more typically the scene of functions and trade fairs, has been turned into a temporary theatre. Around 200 seats surround a stage laid over the parquet floor.

The National Theatre, which resumes the play's West End run at the Gielgud Theatre in June, has joined with Newham Council to stage eight special lunchtime performances. During the next two weeks, more than 1,000 pupils from 14 secondary schools will come here to watch it for free. Sir Robin Wales, who has led Newham Council for almost 20 years, greets pupils as they arrive. "Hiya! Looking forward to it?" he asks, beaming. At this point, few students appear enthusiastic. "Some of these kids have never been to the theatre," the mayor says. "They don't know what to expect. I've just been asking some of them what they think of the National and they don't even know what it is."

Last September, Wales launched the "every child a theatregoer" campaign. He plans to fund theatre visits for all the borough's secondary pupils in each year group, starting with pantomime and working up to Shakespeare's Globe. But he never expected the National to come to him – and not with new a play that last year won a record seven Olivier Awards. "To have this calibre of theatre here in Newham is just fantastic," he says.

Dramatic twist: Mike Noble performs in ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ in front of some of Newham’s school children Dramatic twist: Mike Noble performs in ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ in front of some of Newham’s school children The adaptation of Mark Haddon's novel tells the story of a gifted15-year-old boy with social difficulties whose investigation of the titular "curious incident" transforms his life and family. The first line – "What the fuck have you done to my dog!" – elicits guffaws from the teenaged audience but also shocks them into rapt attention. They remain transfixed for two and a half hours, some appearing to forget the crisp packets in their hands.

The first act ends in an intensely dramatic, emotional scene. In the interval, I ask Ben Yamen, who's 13, what he thought of it. But he's speechless, so his teacher steps in. "For someone like Ben, I think it will take a while for something like this to sink in," Scott Wallace, the head of drama at Cumberland School in central Newham, says. "He's in a bit of shock about something so raw and in his face."

Mr Wallace received the council's invitation just two weeks ago, and has brought along 90 Year 9 students. "These guys are right at the beginning of their drama development so the chance to see something so cutting-edge really raises their aspirations," he says. "A very small percentage get to go to the theatre with their families."

Later, Ben, who before Monday had previously seen only Cinderella on stage, says the play was "really good. It makes you imagine." His classmate, Yaseed Baptista, also 13, adds: "I expected a typical cliché of a normal play about a heroic person trying to find out about the dog, but now I understand that it's a lot different than I thought. I never knew actors could be that good."

I return to my seat alongside Marianne Elliott, the director, who jointly won a Tony Award in 2011 for the Broadway production of War Horse, the National's last big hit. She and Simon Stephens, the playwright who adapted the novel, convened a meeting of the Curious Incident cast and crew a few days after the Apollo collapse. Most of the actors have contracts that end next month.

"As soon as we knew everyone was OK, we wanted to keep the spirit of Christopher going," Elliott says. "He finds the world overwhelming and yet he pursues his mission. We felt very strongly that, as the National Theatre, which is subsidised, we had to find a venue we could perform in for schools, for free, and make this into a kind of different story for us all."

Stephens, a former teacher at a secondary school not far away in Dagenham, says his play's unexpected transfer to the East End represents a return to its roots. "When Mark asked me to adapt it, he was keen on using hi-tech production. I said to him, this book is so democratic. It's adored by everyone from 10-year-olds to serious intellectuals – it's important we write it so it can be produced in any conditions, without big budgets."

Yesterday, Stephens attended the second of the Stratford performances, sitting alongside pupils he had invited from his old school. "What I love about this is that it's reclaiming a bit of the play's spirit," he says. "It seems like a really appropriate, inspiring response to a terrible event."

Curious Incident was first performed in 2012 at the Cottesloe, the smallest of The National's own theatres. The original "in-the-round" staging, which had to change when the play transferred to the Apollo last March, returns in Stratford. It will remain for further special performances at London's Rambert Dance Studios from 17 February. This time, audience members who were at the Apollo during the collapse have been invited.

Going small again was a welcome challenge for the current cast, which had only played on the bigger stage. "What's lovely but also terrifying when you first come on here is that you're so exposed," says Daniel Casey, who plays a character called Mr Shears. "But you can also see their faces. To watch them so engaged, even when they're eating crisps – which is hilarious – is fantastic."

In one scene, Casey and other actors lift Noble above their heads in a beautifully choreographed scene in which the boy imagines he is floating in space.

"There was a big gasp when he went up," the actor says. "As a performer, that is your lifeblood – it felt like we had lifted him about another foot higher."

The Curious Incident: lead actor Mike Noble in the round at Stratford Old Town Hall The Curious Incident: lead actor Mike Noble in the round at Stratford Old Town Hall Noble, who is eating an energy bar after a performance in which he appears to use all of his muscles, all of the time, adds: "I loved it. I think kids in theatres react in a more honest way because they don't know the rules. They laugh at inappropriate moments. But I like that because I think the impact for them will be big."

Casey is the only current cast member who will stay with the London company when it moves to the Gielgud. It's next door to the Apollo, where repairs to the ceiling made a return financially unviable for the National. Casey, too, has vivid memories of the collapse and the total incongruity of a new, unexpected drama.

"I remember standing there when it fell and feeling I had become part of the audience in an odd and horrific way," he tells me. "You were all watching us and then suddenly something happens and we're watching you and totally out of control."

Casey improvised a new line, yet had no memory of it afterwards. "It wasn't until a week later when we had our meeting when someone told me they kept seeing me stand up and shout, 'look out!' Then I was at the front telling people in the audience to come up on the stage to escape. And then it was invisible – just that cloud of dust."

As emergency services and the world's media circled outside, many cast and crew retreated to a bar inside the Lyric, another theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. The thunderous sounds inside of Thriller Live, the Michael Jackson musical, only enhanced the surrealness of their predicament. After returning to the dressing rooms to collect their belongings, they gathered in a nearby pub.

"There was a feeling of not wanting to go home," Neil Mickel, the company stage manager, says. "We were subdued, bewildered, but at the same time we were all saying to each other that could have been a whole lot worse."

As the last of the Newham children leave the town hall after a performance that leaves all of us stunned – this time in the best possible way – Daniel Casey adds: "Over Christmas, I remember thinking, right, I've got to process. But I also got thinking, OK, people haven't died here, amazingly, and now we can make something good happen out of this."

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003