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
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence