Children’s books are a funny, beloved thing of mine. I love how they are so resolutely what they are; I love the shape and feel and taste of them, the way that they are so viciously of themselves and will not be of something else. But equally, I love the way that sometimes you get to pull these books out of their bookish state and make them something different from what they started their life out as. They are still story, but now they’re cake-formed story, or animated story or theatrical story.
This weekend I got to go and see The Boy Who Fell Into A Book at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. What’s special about the Stephen Joseph, is that it’s a theatre in the round. A theatre in the round is quite a lovely thing for it dispenses with the format that we’re perhaps more familiar with of an audience looking onto the stage from one direction only, and presents a stage in the centre of the action with an audience around all four sides.
It’s fascinating (and I imagine it’s really rather thrilling/terrifying) to work in because you are totally exposed. You’re part of the story as the audience because you are literally in it. You’re the edge of the building, or the back of the kitchen, and the actors have to give you everything because you’re there at every angle. There’s no escape from each other and it’s a space I’d love to write for some day.
The Boy Who Fell Into A Book is introduced here in the below video by Alan Ayckbourn who wrote the original, which has now been adapted into a musical.
There’s a great simplicity to this musical and it’s one that struck me as providing a great example of children’s literature and theatre working together. Lyrically, The Boy Who Fell Into A Book has a strong repeated motif of music and of echoes; the hero, Kevin, hums little melodies throughout his adventure and explains that these are to help him remember what happened where. That need to record our exploits, to memorialise ourselves and our story, is something very primal. It’s something that I think shows itself in the great love that children’s / young adult literature has for the first person narrative. We want to say that we were there. We want to say that we did these great and bold things.
It’s something that Frodo does when he starts to write his adventures down, it’s something that the Princess Bride acknowledges, it’s something that we do. We have our stories. And we share our stories because that’s what makes us human, that’s what ties us to each other.
The Boy Who Fell Into A Book does this, not just for dramatic purposes (or for the purposes of reminding an audience what’s happened and maintaining their interest in a narrative), but perhaps more from a genuine joy at being in a story. Kevin loves it. Even though it can’t be all kaboom, kapow (best song in the piece), it can be exciting. It can be terrifying, but it can be exciting. Stories live. Kevin made it happen and he’s in control. Reading. It’s the biggest superpower we have.
I love that. I love that a musical can exist where we roar through scenes from detective stories through to chess for beginners through to falling into one of Kevin’s younger sisters’ books – a book that features the terrifyingly Tellytubby-esque Wobblies. I love that we can live that journey through Kevin’s books with Kevin, that we’re there in every step of the way and that there’s children in the audience yelling out to try and help Kevin back to finding his bedroom.
Theatre is a joy. The immediacy of it, the vitality of it, it’s a joy. Smart, funny and joyful theatrical adaptations of children’s literature? Well, to quote Oliver Twist: “Please Sir, can I have some more?” (And I will! I’m going to go and see The Wind In The Willows in August!).