Ayckbourn play that’s been transformed into a musical - with review

Stephen Matthews Katie Birtill and John Barr in The Boy Who Fell Into A Book. Picture: Tony Bartholomew
Stephen Matthews Katie Birtill and John Barr in The Boy Who Fell Into A Book. Picture: Tony Bartholomew
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A musical based on a 1998 Ayckbourn play had its world premiere in Scarborough this week. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.

It ought really to have been theatrical alchemy. Alan Ayckbourn, one of the theatre’s most prolific and performed writers and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Britain’s greatest musical theatre impresario, coming together.

It was more than a little surprising that the pairing, which combined in 1975 to create By Jeeves, resulted in both parties experiencing a rare blip in their careers.

Had that been the end of the story for By Jeeves, it’s easy to imagine Ayckbourn sticking to music that is no more than incidental in his plays. History tells a different tale – a little over two decades after By Jeeves flopped in London, the playwright had another go and it succeeded in Scarborough at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

Once it had done so, it went on to succeed in London and on Broadway. Ayckbourn, of course, went on to write more musicals, to more success and now he has turned that experience on to a theatrical first – which, at the age of 75, 55 years of them in theatre – must be something of a rarity for Ayckbourn.

This week Ayckbourn saw the intriguing notion of a new musical premiered at the theatre he has called home for 37 years, based on an original play he wrote in in 1998, The Boy Who Fell Into a Book.

“It’s unusual in the sense that I had nothing to do with it,” says Ayckbourn. “The lyricist Paul James and composers Cathy Shostak and Eric Angus contacted me several years ago and said they wanted to do this. They sent me a song, then a little later on they sent me another and I was thinking ‘this isn’t going to be ready until 2030’. Then last year they contacted me to say they’d finished it. They sent me the script, which I approved and I asked if they’d like to come to Scarborough to play it through for me here, which they obligingly did and I liked it enough to want to proceed.”

The original play tells the story of Kevin, a young boy who falls asleep and falls into the story of his literary hero Rockfist Slim. Once in Rockfist’s world, Kevin and his new friend find themselves jumping from story to story, travelling through different books and different genres.

It’s a style of play at which Ayckbourn excels – something that captures the imaginations of young audiences while genuinely appealing to more mature theatre goers.

Composer Eric Angus says: “It struck me from the start as a great story for a musical – strong characters, great set-pieces and a variety of fun settings.”

Lyricist Paul James says: “It’s a buddy movie, a road-trip, a quest where two unlikely partners must learn to co-operate to survive. It’s also, in the most enjoyable, least pretentious way possible, a meditation on such things as childhood, the act of reading and imagination. I loved it.”

So the deal was done and Ayckbourn, whose 78th play also premieres at the seaside theatre this summer, was slated to direct The Boy Who Fell Into a Book, the Musical.

It must have been odd to be handed a project inspired by a piece of work he had written and then be given the responsibility of bringing it to the stage. “It was very interesting,” he says. “Paul not only trimmed the book, but wrote all the lyrics as well. I think they’ve, all of them, caught the spirit of the play very closely. Paul, Cathy and Eric obviously love the piece. I think, gratifyingly, they are as passionate about it as I was when I first wrote the play. It’s for anyone who ever secretly read under the bed clothes as a child and who has ever been captivated by a story.”

REVIEW

The Boy Who Fell into a Book, by Nick Ahad ****

When the opening song of a musical rhymes the final syllable of the word ‘gobbledeegook’ with the word ‘book’, you could be forgiven for looking around for the crowbar.

However, creative team Eric Angus, Cathy Shostak and Paul James are actually highly inventive as displayed in this adventurous story which throws its audience into several whole new worlds.

Inventive and irreverent are the words for a script that takes a French villain, Monique, and gives her delicious lyrics in which she sings about eating all the pies yet staying so slim. This is one of those pieces of theatre aimed at a “family” audience that do genuinely appeal to adults as well as children.

Kevin Carter, a ten year old boy, falls asleep reading the stories of his hero Rockfist Slim and wakes up in the literary world. Kevin needs to get home and Slim needs to stay alive. To say the role of Kevin is embraced with enthusiasm by Evelyn Hoskins is like saying Tigger quite likes bouncing. She is brilliant and hilarious in her total commitment to the role of a pre-pubescent boy. Similarly Nicolas Colicos never betrays anything but total faith in the material, which has him playing a Raymond Chandler-esque detective.

The other great joy of watching this was Ayckbourn’s direction. He directs with the glee and enthusiasm of someone still discovering his box of directing tricks.

• To August 31.