26th May 2000 at 01:00
THE BOY WHO FELL INTO A BOOK. By Alan Ayckbourn. Faber and Faber pound;6.99. PLAYS FOR CHILDREN. Edited by Helen Rose. Faber and Faber pound;6.99. DRACULA. By Bram Stoker. Adapted by David Calcutt. Oxford University Press (Oxford Playscripts) pound;5.80.

YOU MADE ME. By Kelvin Reynolds and Adrian Lockwood. Collins Educational (Collins Plays Plus) pound;5.99. STREET CHILD. By Berlie Doherty. Collins Educational (Collins Plays Plus) pound;5.99. FORTY SHORT PLAYS. By Ann Cartwright. Heinemann pound;6.25.

Christmas at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough usually means the premi re of a new children's play by Alan Ayckbourn. The Scarborough theatre is Ayckbourn's home ground, and plays which later traverse the great globe itself begin their life there. Our most successful commercial dramatist has committed himself to children's theatre, and proved time and again that live performance offers children a form of entertainment and education that neither television nor computers can give them.

The Boy Who Fell into a Book is one of his Scarborough plays. The story of a boy whose compulsive bedtime reading plunges him into a comic nightmare, hunted by the villainous Monique from book to book on his shelf, the play is a spectacular theatrical odyssey and (on the side) a celebration of reading. It should be seen by children in their thousands.

But there's the rub. The economics of children's theatre restrict its audiences to the few. Ayckbourn's work is not cheap, his plays are famous for technical ingenuities and surprise effects. Theatre is his language, not just words, and a playscript is only a shadow of the work in performance.

The same is true of the four plays in Helen Rose's excellent collection. All are children's plays for the professional repertoire. They are imaginative, entertaining and quite unlike each other, but all alling for a properly resourced performance.

The scripts are good to have, but there is no substitute for the live experience. Shaun Prendergast's Little Victories is a play about childhood death and bereavement. It is powerful enough on the page, but cold print cannot reproduce the wonderful dramatic epiphany of its close. That needs a professional children's company. Helen Rose's valuable book ends with a comprehensive list of them, with contact numbers and addresses. Many exist on a knife-edge, yet they offer children unique experiences.

The contrast between theatre and everyday classroom drama is clear from the other books. Each supplies a script, and then a range of standard national curriculum activities, some of them dramatic but most not.

Dracula is a thoughtful reworking of Bram Stoker's novel, and the activities are well-conceived, staying close to the ghoulish events. Unfortunately the script is not wholeheartedly theatrical. It falls between playscript and prose narrative, relying heavily on plot-links spoken straight to audience - a story illustrated by dramatic scenes.

You Made Me, a play about the effects on children of marital breakdown, is dramatically very effective and full of strong cameos, but this time the follow-up activities are disappointing, turning authentic drama into a standard project on marriage, divorce and family stress.

Text and activities in Street Child, a Dickensian play about the founding of Dr Barnardo's, bring vividly to life the eventful grimness of Victorian child poverty. Forty Short Plays is a clever and lively collection of playlets for single-lesson drama.

These classroom scriptsare useful, competently marketed resources. But teachers who believe live theatre really matters must turn first to Ayckbourn and Rose.

Peter Hollindale

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