THERE is a genuine excitement in the air as Bolton’s Octagon Theatre gears up for one of the most ambitious and, arguably, one of the most important productions in its esteemed history.

We are just over a week away from the world premiere of The Book Thief - a musical based on the worldwide bestseller by Markus Zusak.

For Jodi Picoult and Timothy Allen McDonald it marks the culmination of several years worth of work - an idea which was first sparked across the Atlantic about to become a reality in Bolton.

Jodi and Tim have been responsible for adapting the novel - the story of a young girl growing up in 1930s’ Germany - and you have to say they certainly have the credentials.

Jodi has sold a staggering 40 million copies of her own books around the world; Tim has worked on more than 65 musicals including James and the Giant Peach.

But how did these two American heavyweights end up bringing a world first to Bolton?


Jodi Picoult (Picture: Tim Llewellyn)

Jodi Picoult (Picture: Tim Llewellyn)


“We were working together with our songwriting team - Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson - on another project and we’d all got on so well, we were getting separation anxiety as the project was coming to an end,” said Jodi.

“We talked about working together again and what we thought might make a great musical. We all made lists and The Book Thief was on everybody’s list.”

It’s one thing having the idea for a musical, it’s another thing altogether to bring it to fruition.

“I’d met Markus Zusak at a literary event in Texas,” said Jodi, “and we’d kind of bonded. I got in touch with him and said I know exactly what it’s like to be an author and have something adapted. I will take care of this baby. Please let us have the rights.”

The Book Thief had originally been given to the Sydney Opera Company but Markus agreed to put it in Jodi’s care and the project was born.

The Octagon link was established via the theatre’s artistic director Lotte Wakeham.

“I’d worked with her many years ago part of junior theatre festival event in Birmingham,” said Tim. “When you watch someone work with young people you get a good idea of how they are as a human being and also their skill levels as a director.

“When I learned that she had become artistic director at the Octagon, there was a director I really respected with a new theatre - I had to drop her a line about The Book Thief. It turns out she has a special connection to the novel as her grandfather was a survivor of the Holocaust.

“She even has a brother called Max and a sister called Liesel,” added Jodi, “both characters in the book. I think the universe put us together for a reason.”

One of the keys to the development of the production has been the attitude of the book’s author.

“Markus has been so gracious,” said Jodi. “He said ‘I will always have the book. The book is the book. This production is not the book, it’s your incarnation of the story’. That is a level of freedom that not a lot of authors, probably including me, would be willing to give.

“He seems to trust us to tell the story the way we need to tell it.

“As someone who has had a lot of work adapted in a lot of different mediums I do not believe you need to see the book on the stage or in the movie. You need to leave feeling the way that you felt when you closed the last page of the book; you need to understand why the author chose to write that story and make sure that you honour that.

“There are departures from the book for the sake of being able to tell the story in three dimensions. There has to be. We can’t put an 800 page novel on the stage or we’d all be here alight.

“I think we’ve done a really good job of telling the story in a way that leaves you with the same deep emotional connection to the material that reading the book does.”

To many people, The Book Thief is not an obvious choice for a stage musical but Jodi and Tim were never in any doubts.


Tim McDonald

Tim McDonald


“We both saw this book as very theatrical,” said Tim. “There’s a theatricality to Markus’ writing and the way in which he tells a story. His writing just sings.

“I will read one sentence and go ‘I wish I had written that’,” said Jodi. “It’s a book I wish I’d written. It’s so beautiful. His turn of phrase and metaphors are just stunning. There is music in his words.”

The Book Thief documents a dark time in the history of Europe as the Nazis rose to power in Germany and began their persecution of the Jews.

“It is really difficult material in many ways,” admitted Jodi. “There’s no getting away from it, it is about the Holocaust. That said one of the reasons Markus wrote it was to point out that at the time ordinary Germans did not know they were living through.

“And there are true moments or joy and laughter in this piece that you’d be surprised by. There are moments of great beauty and connection and delight.”

Part of the appeal of dramatising the Book Thief for both Jodi and Tim was the extraordinary relevance the story from the 1930s has today.

“When we first started working on it we were seeing Donald Trump rising in popularity in the States,” said Tim. “History has a way of not staying in the past and we thought that it would be a great cautionary tale.

“Then we had the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the rise in extremism in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Scary things are happening and once again people are looking for scapegoats. What’s really important is that this is not a historical piece any more. This is about what is happening right now in your country and our country.”


The Bolton News: Bolton OctagonBolton Octagon (Image: Bolton Octagon)

Book Thief opens at Bolton Octagon on September 17


“We were rehearsing a book burning scene last week,” said Jodi, “ and at the same time I saw on Twitter that one of my books had been banned in Florida. The book, 19 minutes, is about a school shooting but they don’t have a problem with the violence; it’s a scene of date rape which one parent deemed to be porn that was the offensive and led to it being banned.

“That’s kind of where we are in America right now. We are hair’s breadth away from burning books. There’s a very militant group of people trying to control what gets out and who gets to read it.”

But with a mesmerising score by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson, The Book Thief is a piece which offers hope.

“There is something about delivering emotion through music which adds a whole layer that you can’t do with words,” said Jodi, “what they have achieved is truly beautiful.”

“I think when people hear that the Book Thief is going to be staged as a musical they have the idea that it will be like Annie,” said Tim. “It most certainly won’t be. The songs and music contribute so much to the show.”

Collaboration is a word which crops up many times during our conversation and it’s clear that The Book Thief is very much a team effort.

“There were no egos at work,” said Tim. “We were all very much playing in the same sandbox.”

Although a best seller, Jodi and Tim are keen to point out you don’t need to have read the book to enjoy the show.

“If you have, you’ll come and see the show and go ‘oh I see what they are doing’ and if you haven’t read it there’s going to be a terrific reveal for you by the end,” she said.

So what do they hope audiences will take away from the show?

“We want them to come away with idea that kindness can make the world a better place. A simple act of daily kindness, just taking that little extra step will solve our problems - that’s what we have lost.”

“You can't get rid of the hate but you can find a way out of it through all these momentary acts of kindness and connections and I think that’s something we’d be all very smart to keep in our heads right now.”

With such a high profile team behind it who knows where The Book Thief will go from here - the West End and even Broadway have been whispered about. But for the moment, the Octagon will take centre stage for a genuine world first.

The Book Thief, Bolton Octagon Theatre, Saturday, September 17 to Saturday, October 15. Details from