Today marks the much welcome return of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time to the West End and with it a brand new cast including the show’s new Christopher, Graham Butler, who takes the coveted baton from predecessors including the Olivier Award-winning Luke Treadaway.
With an impressive list of credits to his name already – including a role in Sky’s star-studded Penny Dreadful and his critically acclaimed turn in the title role of last year’s Henry VI cycle at Shakespeare’s Globe – Butler is well prepared for the challenge of starring in the National Theatre’s hit show that, with its innovative and striking staging, will require him to climb up walls and be thrown about on Bunny Christie’s award-winning set. But, as we discovered when the actor took time out of rehearsals to fill us in on how his career has led him to this point, the role hasn’t come without a touch of trepidation and – somewhat less predictably – a lot of Pilates …
CV in brief:
2010: Makes National Theatre debut in The White Guard
2011: Makes West End debut in Journey’s End
2012: Appears in Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe
2013: Returns to Shakespeare’s Globe to play the title role in the Henry VI cycle
2014: Plays Peter Murray in television’s Penny Dreadful
2014: Takes the role of Christopher in the seven-time Olivier Award-winning National Theatre hit The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Lancashire and moved down to London when I was about 20.
What first got you interested in acting?
I’m the youngest of three brothers and I suppose like any youngest sibling I just copied what they did. They did local am-dram in church halls and because they did it, I had to go along and get under their feet and in their way! They have both since given that up, although my eldest brother Matthew is a director and Dominic is a writer, so we’ve all remained in this creative field.
Do your parents come from a creative background?
No not at all. It’s a bit of a mystery to people how it happened. We were raised by a very brilliant mother who I think was bored in her job all her life and so was very encouraging of us. I suspect that’s why all three of us have ended up in such terrifying, but interesting things.
Had you seen The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time before you got the part?
No I hadn’t and I feel really lucky [now]! The reason I hadn’t initially is because it’s one of my favourite books. I read it 12 years ago when it first came out and I loved it, I thought it was just unlike anything else I’ve ever read. So when I heard that the National were doing it, even if it was the National, even if it was Marianne Elliott – who is a genius and capable of doing these things – I just thought ‘There’s no way, it’s going to be a complete disaster’ [laughs].
After the first few shows at the Cottesloe you started hearing how wonderful it was, and then of course you couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money. Now, having got the job, I’m incredibly grateful I didn’t see it.
Is that so you can start afresh without having any preconceived ideas?
Absolutely, yes. And Katy Rudd, the brilliant director on this version, is completely open for that. What they did was they gave us this amazing blueprint – if people have seen it before they will certainly recognise it as the same production – but things are changing and evolving all the time, so it’s great to come and feel like you’re part of something brand new and not just a replacement for Luke Treadaway!
Is there a new creative team on board now?
All those original brilliant people are there, but it’s been handed on. Katy Rudd was involved from day one as Marianne Elliott’s [the director] assistant, so she’s fully taken over now. She’s very much in tune with Marianne’s ideas and she knows the show better than anyone probably, but they have absolutely given us licence to find new things. It’s a very technical show and there is a great deal of choreography in it, so of course to look at there will be certain things that are precise and exactly the same time, but we’re all different people. When you go and watch Hamlet, just because you’ve seen it 10 times, you hope to find something new in that character each time and I think that’s the way we’re approaching this.
What does it feel like to take over a role that someone has already won an Olivier Award for?
When I said yes to the role, I jumped at the chance, but there was certainly a little niggle in the back of my brain. Luke had just won the Olivier when I said yes to it, but as soon as I’d talked to Katy properly and we’d got into the rehearsal room I realised that actually none of that mattered, it’s about so much more than that central character of Christopher. He’s the central character because it’s his story and he’s telling the story, but he’s in no way a lead, it’s the most ensembley thing, so it’s entirely reliant on everyone being in tune and being together.
I suppose if there is any pressure, it’s about keeping the entire show as brilliant as it has been and living up to those expectations as opposed to me thinking about what it is that Luke did that made it so special. We’ve still got the same amazing script, although with a few cuts and edits and a few added lines and things, so hopefully we can’t go too far wrong.
The show tweeted a photo of the whole cast working out together in rehearsals. Do you have to keep fit to perform in this show?
Yes, when I accepted the job they kept talking about ‘bootcamp’ as if we were going into battle! Every morning it’s circuit training and Pilates, and the show is so physical. Frantic Assembly have done the most amazing stuff and its entirely reliant on core strength and being in tune with people, so it is all necessary. We’re in our fourth week of rehearsals now and you can see everyone getting stronger and more at ease with the lifts. Doing sit-ups and boxing and things, as horrible and sweaty as they are, all feel very necessary. The great thing as well is the whole company is there; regardless of age or experience, we’re all in it together.
Last year you starred in the three-part Henry VI at Shakespeare’s Globe. What was that like?
That was a real dream. I keep talking about ensemble and the company, but there was something like 170 roles in that and a cast of 12, so the most incredible theatricality involved people throwing off one cloak and putting another one on and transforming characters.
Did you ever feel smug that you were playing just the one role?
Yeah, it was brilliant! In the first play, when Henry’s only a young child, I barely moved off my throne, so watching other people sweating for hours on end doing endless fight scenes and changing costumes while I just sat on my throne with my crown reading a book, it was great!
How did you feel when you found out you had won a title role so soon after drama school?
It was 23 December – I remember the date because I was on my way home, I had a train booked to go back to see my mum in Lancashire – and… I got the phone call saying I’d got the part. Getting off the train and telling my mum that I was going to play Henry VI was incredible. To do that at the Globe and to take it to battlefields where some of the Wars of the Roses actually took place was incredibly humbling.
You’ve also worked on screen. Would you like to do more or is theatre where your passion lies?
Doing those plays in cold church halls 20 years ago, that’s how I got into acting and that’s where my love remains. I’ve done less TV and film work than theatre so perhaps that will shift… but at the moment my heart absolutely lies with theatre.
People can see you at the moment in Penny Dreadful. What’s your role in that?
I play Timothy Dalton’s son, which is quite a dream to play James Bond’s son! The story is that his daughter has gone missing, has been taken, so we see through flashbacks how people like Eva Green and Josh Hartnett got to this point. [It was] quite incredible as a TV job to go and hang out with these huge Hollywood stars on a set with the most amazing budget and incredible writing.
Did it feel luxurious compared to the world of theatre?
[Laughs] Yes, it does. It’s incredibly hard work and it’s an incredibly different skill, which I’m still learning about on TV and film, but you do sit down a lot and people do everything for you and I miss the graft! It’s not something I’m accustomed to having people bring cups of tea to you! I don’t think it’s something I’d like to get used to.
What was it like working with such high-profile people?
Incredible. Of course you get on set and you realise that all these people are just hard-working actors and directors and they’re all completely normal and not starry or showbizzy. Doing scenes with people like Eva Green and Anna Chancellor, who are just so down to earth and normal… I don’t see why actors should ever not be those things, so it’s a great lesson in keeping your feet on the ground certainly.
What has been the highlight of your time on stage so far?
I might actually go back to Henry VI. Performing on the Globe stage in front of however many people and watching and listening to them clap along as you do a jig at the end of a three show day, when you’ve been there since 10 in the morning and it’s now 10 at night, and just knowing that you’ve told a really important story is quite overwhelming, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to have similar feelings about this show when we’re up and running. I’ve been really lucky to meet some people with Asperger’s and Autism and go to some schools, and people have been incredibly generous with their time. To listen to parents who have already seen the show in previous incarnations talk about how truthful it was to their lives and how much it meant to them to know that somebody understands and they’ve managed to put it on stage, that’s quite humbling.
It goes back to responsibility, we’re not doctors, we’re not in the army, we’re not saving lives or anything, but hopefully we’re changing lives a bit. If one person in that theatre goes away being affected in some manner, then I think we’ve done alright.