Kidnapped: Turning Stevenson's classic adventure into a new coming-of-age stage show

It is the classic Scottish literary adventure being reinvented for the country’s next big theatre production.
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When the characters and story from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped re-emerge on stage this spring they will be at the heart of what is being billed as a “swashbuckling coming-of-age rom-com for today.”

The bond formed between David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart which Stevenson portrayed in the 137-year-old is about to become a romance in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production, which opens in Greenock on 28 March.

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The transformation of the literary classic into a new theatre-with-music show will see their adventures across Scotland played out to a soundtrack of song covers, encompassing “denim-clad Americana, late 90s love songs, art rock, protest anthems, 80s synth-pop and Gaelic folk song.”

And the show will honour the little-known contribution to the Kidnapped novella of Stevenson’s wife - by giving her a prominent role as a “spirit guide" narrator.

Born in Indianapolis, Frances Matilda Van de Grift was a magazine writer who had travelled across America with her five-year-old daughter, learned to shoot a pistol while living in a mining town and met the author in Paris after moving to Europe when her first marriage broke up.

The 10-strong cast of Kidnapped, which will be touring Scotland until early May, will be led by Ryan J Mackay and Malcolm Cumming, who will be playing Balfour and Stewart respectively.

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The new version of Kidnapped is being adapted by writer-director Isobel McCarthur and composer and music supervisor Michael John McCarthy, with the show reuniting the pair following the huge success of McCarthur’s reinvention of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which was launched at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow and went on to win an Olivier Award after transferring to London’s West End.

On the back of the success of that first adaptation, which was launched in 2018, McArthur was asked by NTS artistic director Jackie Wylie if there were any other novels that she would be interested in tackling.

McArthur said: “I asked for a room for a half a day to thrash around some ideas.

"I’ve always loved Stevenson, but I wasn’t aware of any theatre adaptations of Kidnapped.

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"The book is gorgeous and it seemed to me to be this extraordinary love-at-first-sight story.

Ryan J Mackay and Malcolm Cumming will be playing Davie Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart in the forthcoming National Theatre of Scotland production of Kidnapped. Image: Laurence WinramRyan J Mackay and Malcolm Cumming will be playing Davie Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart in the forthcoming National Theatre of Scotland production of Kidnapped. Image: Laurence Winram
Ryan J Mackay and Malcolm Cumming will be playing Davie Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart in the forthcoming National Theatre of Scotland production of Kidnapped. Image: Laurence Winram

"In the edition I had, the introduction was written by Stevenson’s wife. I couldn’t even have told you before then that he had a wife.

“I looked her up and she was absolutely fascinating. It turned out that she was a writer herself and writing Kidnapped was her idea.

"She was an extraordinary, gun-toting, Johnny Cash, radical feminist-like figure in real life.

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"I started mapping her story, which was unbelievable, onto the Kidnapped story and discovered that one clearly borrows very heavily from the other.”

Rehearsals for the new National Theatre of Scotland production of ‘Kidnapped’, directed by Isobel McArthur and Gareth Nicholls. Picture: Julie HowdenRehearsals for the new National Theatre of Scotland production of ‘Kidnapped’, directed by Isobel McArthur and Gareth Nicholls. Picture: Julie Howden
Rehearsals for the new National Theatre of Scotland production of ‘Kidnapped’, directed by Isobel McArthur and Gareth Nicholls. Picture: Julie Howden

As with Stevenson’s original work, the new stage version of Kidnapped is set in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion and sees the recently-orphaned Balfour thrust into a life-changing adventure after he discovers he has been cheated out of his inheritance and is kidnapped after boarding a ship docked at South Queensferry.

McCarthy said: “Frances has quite a role to play in how we tell the story. She is essentially the narrator or storytelling figure.

"The crux of Stevenson’s story is when Davie has a life-changing encounter with Alan Breck Stewart. In our version, it is very clearly a romantic love story.

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"If people don’t know the story of Kidnapped, they shouldn’t worry. We will invite people into the story. It doesn’t pre-suppose any knowledge about it. People will really be coming to see a brilliant coming-of-age story.

“But if people do know the novel well, I hope the show shines a different light on some aspects of it.

"We want the songs to be surprises for the audiences. There are some fifties and sixties country classics which come with the character of Frances. “For the most part it’s really romantic pop music, including a series of choice selections from the eighties and some from that iconic Scottish pop canon.”

Rehearsals are underway in Glasgow for the new National Theatre of Scotland production of ‘Kidnapped’. Picture: Julie HowdenRehearsals are underway in Glasgow for the new National Theatre of Scotland production of ‘Kidnapped’. Picture: Julie Howden
Rehearsals are underway in Glasgow for the new National Theatre of Scotland production of ‘Kidnapped’. Picture: Julie Howden

Mackay said: “I have to admit I hadn't read the book or even heard of it until the play came up. People around me very quickly let me know it was quite a big thing that people love.

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"It was really useful to read the book. At the heart of the show is Davie’s journey of trying to figure out who he is. I could definitely have got away with not reading it, but it’s been really helpful in giving me a sense of who Davie is.

"I really do think the show is for everyone in one way or another. It’s a really heart-felt story. It’s for people who have never been to theatre before or don’t really understand. But for people who go to the theatre all the time there are so many depths to the story. People will definitely get something out of it.”

Cumming, who had several copies of the book at home when he was growing up, said: “There is something so much deeper in there that I never gleaned from the story when I was younger.

“The two characters are experiencing a relationship in a situation where everything is turned up to 11 and is a matter of life and death. The celebration of relationships which happens in the story has become so clear to me now. It will be a story a lot of people will have an affinity to.

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"To have 10 performers and a big creative team in a room working on something like this then taking it out on a big tour is so exciting after the last couple of years. It will be a lot of fun taking around the country.”