“The show’s really physically challenging,” John Tiffany tells me by way of explanation for the booming disco music reverberating throughout our interview. “They have to do warm ups, cardio and circuit training because they’re running up and down trees, jumping off lockers, submerged underwater, having big, big full-on fights…”
Behind that closed door to the left of where writer Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany sit talking to me are the cast of Let The Right One In, who, following its premiere earlier this year in Scotland, will bring the pair’s retelling of the cult Swedish book to life once again for a London audience. Playing at the Royal Court later this week it will be judged, no doubt, by the many fans of the novel and its two subsequent horror film adaptations, all drawn to its evocative snow-filled setting where murder and sexual awakening go hand in hand.
That the two people at the centre of the show are a vampire and a young teenager goes someway to explain why the theatrically challenging feats of running up and down trees and hanging people upside down come to play in this unusual love story. To discover more about creating this reality on stage, we talked to Thorne, one of the UK’s most in demand writers, and the director behind everything from hit musical Once to Iraq drama Black Watch about the importance of staying faithful to the story, why the production could be a theatrical emancipation for teenagers and how high-profile movement director Steven Hoggett’s involvement was imperative.
What is it about the story of Let The Right One In that you love?
Tiffany: It’s just such a wonderful fairy tale, set in Sweden in the 1980s in a snowy world where people walk through forests at night and can be victims of vampires. And it is that very powerful story of the bullied teenager and how he meets somebody who gives him the resources to try and fight back. It’s a love story. With fangs!
Thorne: Eli equally needs rescuing from her life, so it’s that thing that beautiful love stories have: two people who don’t know they fit together discovering that they can. That’s what I love about it.
Tiffany: For me it feels like an inverted version of Peter Pan with Eli as a kind of Peter, because she never grows old, Håkan is probably Wendy and Oskar’s Jane.
How did the project first come about?
Tiffany: Marla Rubin [a theatre producer] approached me. She’d acquired the rights to both the screenplay and the novel. I thought it was a brilliant idea. I started to think about someone who could adapt it and I immediately alighted on Jack.
How did you first meet?
Tiffany: We go way back. You were an undergraduate at Cambridge…
Thorne: …and you came and directed a rehearsed reading.
Tiffany: That you were acting in!
Thorne: Yes. You were the only person I wrote to after university and you were my first meeting and you were my first employer.
So I take it you’re admirers of each other’s work?
Tiffany: No… [laughs] Yes very much so. And we’ve actually kept in contact, haven’t we? Although I was working in Scotland so tended to work with mainly Scottish writers, we knew after a few years that if we matured we should be able to work with the best writers for the best projects, and Jack immediately came to mind for this. I knew he’d love the film, even though we’d never talked about it.
Thorne: He was looking for… [looks for the right way to say it], well it’s a play about a weird lonely teenager.
Tiffany: Are you the go-to for that?
Thorne: That’s my genre!
Are you suggesting you’re a weird lonely teenager?
Thorne: Yes, I am suggesting that. I am a bald, 35-year-old weird lonely teenager.
Tiffany: I’m getting hints that you want to move out of that period?
Thorne: Yes, this is the last thing I do. Well, Glue [a television drama Thorne has written that will be shown on E4] is the last thing I do about teenagers. I’ll go back, but you reach a point where you write a sex scene between two teenagers and you feel weird about it because it just becomes inappropriate to write it. And there are also things that are happening… Snapchat, I don’t understand Snapchat and you have to understand these things if you’re going to write about them!
Tiffany: Luckily we’re in 1983 where there is no Snapchat and no mobile phones!
Did you have a vision of how it would be staged when you were writing it Jack?
Thorne: The nicest comment we got on the script was that Vicky Featherstone [Artistic Director of the Royal Court] said that when she read it, [she felt] it was written by someone who had been watching John and Steven’s [Hoggett] work for 15 years. This isn’t a play written as a play, it’s a play written for John Tiffany to direct and that’s really important to me. What John’s done with it is entirely not what I expected, but entirely what I expected in that it’s very distinctive and beautiful.
If you’d been doing this project with a director you hadn’t known as well, do you think you would have found it harder to pass the characters over?
Thorne: The script would have been entirely different. One thing John said right at the beginning was ‘Don’t write it like a stage play, set some challenges for us that we can solve’. It was written like a stage play with no real boundaries to how big the stage could be.
Tiffany: Which is how all stage plays should be written really.
Thorne: Yes, but I wouldn’t hand in a play to any theatre really that looked like the play that I handed in to you.
Tiffany: Well then thank God for writer/director relationships, where you feel able to do that
without feeling like you’ve not done your job properly.
Was Steven Hoggett always going to work on the project?
Tiffany: Yes. We were at school together and we work together on many things, not everything, but there are certain things that we go ‘This is one isn’t it?’ Mainly for the physicality of Eli when the vampire becomes strong in her. Then we get to the practical challenges, like hanging people upside down from trees, having people submerged underwater and what is in the book and the film known as ‘the swimming pool scene’, which we do and he’s [Oskar] underwater for a good long time [looks mischievous]. Very safely I should probably add, but it doesn’t feel safe!
It feels like there’s almost a magical element to the show as to how you do all that.
Tiffany: I think there’s a double-edged sword there. I would hate people who came to leave thinking ‘How did they do that?’, because then I think I would have let Jack down. But at the same time you want to disappear into the story so much that you go [draws in breath tensely].
Of course we can’t have a full length swimming pool on stage like a novelist can get you to imagine in the book or like you can have in a film. People have said to us it’s even worse [for that] because we’re live and we’re all sat watching it, and there’s somebody under the water for too long [laughs]. There’s a sense we’re all sat being complicit in something. All it would take is one person to stand up and say ‘This is irresponsible’. It’s like those Nazi experiments isn’t it?! 400 people sit there at the Royal Court and go ‘They must know what they’re doing?!’ No, I would never put an actor in any danger at all. It’s the climax of the show though, so you have to go for it.
How did you feel the first time you saw who they’d cast as Oskar and Eli, Jack?
Thorne: I was there for Martin’s [Quinn, who plays Oskar] audition actually and it was so interesting. I remember Martin very clearly because he just had these shoulders that didn’t quite look like the other boys’… You expect Oskar to be cowed and inward looking and Martin [as Oskar] just looks at the world and smiles, and it’s this weird thing where you’ve got this boy who smiles at the world and yet is treated incredibly badly by it. It’s really been exciting watching that grow and watching him grow as a performer because it’s his first professional engagement. Rebecca [Benson, Eli] has worked with Steven and John before.
Tiffany: She’s quite small [she’s 4 foot 11], but she’s got an incredibly timeless quality. She’s a perfect actress for theatre.
Thorne: There’s a moment when she feeds that’s just deadly, isn’t it?
Tiffany: It’s like a little leech isn’t it?!
What do you think it is about vampires that holds so much intrigue for people?
Thorne: I don’t know. When I was growing up, it was all about aliens and aliens coming from outside and bringing warmth into the world, and now it’s about these creatures that have lived forever that have to live off us. With The Hunger Games too, that level of brutality seems to be what’s drawing kids, I don’t quite understand it. I think it’s very hard being a kid these days. That might be it.
Are you hoping for a West End transfer?
Tiffany: We’ve been told it’s going, which is brilliant. They think there’s an audience for it, which is fantastic. It’s sold out incredibly quickly at the Royal Court and I’m really glad that they’ve kept back some teenage tickets [so] the only people that can now get in to see the show are teenagers on the £10 tickets, it’s superb. It really emancipates that audience, rather than being dragged along by your mum and dad!
If you could do another stage adaptation of a book or film together, what would you do?
Thorne: It’s tough, they come along once in a while but I feel a bit fraudulent at the moment. Having your name in lights on Sloane Square is nuts and amazing, I feel incredibly grateful for it, but this isn’t by me. I would like to write a play that the Royal Court put on that I can say is by me. I’ve been trying to write that and it’s about councils; it’s not about teenagers at all. [Both dissolve into laughter.]
Tiffany: I think the time is due that we work on an original Jack play. This was a nice way to bring us back together, but that’s the future.