Theatre preview: The Boy Who Fell Into A Book, Stephen Joseph Theatre

A scene from the musical The Boy Who Fell Into a Book.

A scene from the musical The Boy Who Fell Into a Book.

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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.

Last 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.”

First introduced to audiences in 1998, Kevin Carter and Rockfist Slim make an unlikely pairing. It is undoubtedly one of their charms.

One is a boy with an overactive imagination, and the other is a world-weary cynical detective. Ayckbourn says: “I liked the incongruity of a hard-boiled private eye being forced to tag along with a kid and the slow affection that grows between them; the way that very often the kid is more knowledgeable about the world they’re getting into than the detective is prepared to admit.”

At STJ, to August 31. Tickets from www.sjt.uk.com or on 01723 370541.

Review: Mighty Atoms