The Boy Who Fell into a Book

Alan Ayckbourn, musical adaptation and lyrics by Paul James, music by Cathy Shostak and Eric Angus
Stephen Joseph Theatre
Stephen Joseph Theatre

Evelyn Hoskins in The Boy Who Fell into a Book Credit: Tony Bartholomew
The cast of The Boy Who Fell into a Book Credit: Tony Bartholomew
Stephen Matthews, Katie Birtill, John Barr and Nicolas Colicos in The Boy Who Fell into a Book Credit: Tony Bartholomew

Alan Ayckbourn first wrote The Boy Who Fell into a Book as a play to commemorate the National Year of Reading 1998-1999. Incorporating tropes and themes from classic novels and genres which have inspired children’s reading for decades, if not centuries, the story sees young Kevin, the eponymous Boy, whisked into a world of tall tales and fantastic invention aimed at all the family.

This brand new musical version was the brainchild of lyricist and writer Paul James, along with composers Cathy Shostak and Eric Angus. Pitching the idea to Ayckbourn, they found the veteran director and writer so enthused by the project that he offered to direct it himself.

It’s not difficult to see why Ayckbourn might have a soft spot for the story. When ten-year-old bookworm Kevin (Evelyn Hoskins) just can’t resist staying up late trying to finish the detective novel he’s engrossed in, he somehow finds himself sucked into the story at a crucial cliffhanger moment. So Kevin gets to meet his hero, the hardboiled protagonist of the potboiler, Rockfist Slim (Nicolas Colicos). He’s the embodiment of the Bronx-based private eye who shoots first and asks questions later (if at all), but when we encounter him he’s in a jam.

Together, the unlikely pair (the unlikeliness magnified by the wonderful physical and vocal difference between Colicos and Hoskins) have to find a way out of the tight corner. But that’s not the end of the story, as once out of immediate danger they are teleported from book to book on Kevin’s shelves.

Ayckbourn’s taste for sci-fi and outlandish genre games is at the fore here. There are excursions through chess manuals, fairy tales, and collections of ghost stories—a reading list which will (one would hope) still hold resonance for the youngsters in the audience.

From the opening eponymous number, it feels as though the story is in safe hands. The music does not patronise or bow to overly poppy convention, unlike some other recent new musicals aimed at younger audiences; there is much of interest in the melodies and arrangements. The lyrics, too, play punning games with multiple and internal rhymes which, while falling short of Sondheim-level conceits, will provide amusement and stretch younger audiences.

Evelyn Hoskins is a talented singer, a vibrant presence and perfectly cast in the principal boy role as the slender, energetic and sparky ten-year-old teaming up with the towering Rockfist. Colicos in the latter role is also ideal—able to play the hard-bitten private eye but an always likeable personality, and a similarly commanding vocal performance. Once they meet, this central odd couple is rarely offstage, with the staging and design cunningly combining to conjure the different realms they encounter fluidly and unfussily.

As mentioned, the books included in the story are generally timeless and easy for audiences of all ages to grasp. A segment based around Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, however is one of the show’s few slight off-notes, with at times (unintentionally) impenetrable parody Scottish accents and clichés. A later segment brings the most modern reference, when the central characters of one of Kevin’s younger sister’s books, ‘the Wubbly family’, summons almost In the Night Garden-esque creepiness and delirium. Parents should be advised, though, that the ghost story segment may be a little too petrifying for the very youngest of audience members.

Ayckbourn directs with the slickness of someone who knows the story—and the venue—inside out, as well he might, and the Stephen Joseph’s in-the-round setting is put to inventive use. Michael Holt’s design is spot on, with the pyjama’d Kevin meeting a suitably grotesque and comical gallery of characters. Jason Taylor’s lighting also does much to summon a wide range of effective settings from the otherwise relatively bare staging. The impression of rain on a storm-lashed Scottish hilltop is, for instance, highly effective.

Such is the range of costumes and characterisations involved, I am sure many audience members will be surprised to see only six actors taking bows at the end. Katie Birtill thrills as French arch-enemy Monique, Natasha J Barnes is a commanding cod-Shakespearean White Queen, John Barr is a creepy, scheming Wolf in Grandmother’s clothing, and Stephen Matthews a glowering, superbly comic Ebenezer Balfour. But all of these play many more roles, and provide strong choral work for the musical numbers.

The musical director and band leader, Mark Warman, has come up with a similarly crafty arrangement which, like the doubling of roles, provides a rich product with surprisingly few band-members.

On the whole, this is a comical, warm-hearted production which adds entertaining music and astute adjustments to an already enjoyable story for all the family.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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