Before Narnia, and long before Hogwarts, there was a book where children were the heroes encountering magic, good versus evil and the saving of Christmas. The book, written by John Masefield was The Box of Delights and 83 years later, Piers Torday’s adaptation of the story opens once more at Wilton’s Music Hall.
At the start of the Christmas Holidays, young orphan Kay Harker (Theo Ancient) is on a train to his guardian Caroline Louisa. Whilst on the train, Kay meets a vicar by the name of Charles (Tom Kanji) and his companion, the vivacious Pouncer (Sara Stewart). The two of them seem to warm to Kay and Charles introduces him to a card game called ‘find the lady’. When the two leave him, Kay is upset to find he appears to have lost his wallet. However, he cheers up somewhat when he meets an old man by the name of Cole Hawlings (Nigel Betts). Cole is a friendly chap, who seems to know a lot about Kay already. He is a Punch and Judy performer, and he tells Kay that he spends most of the time travelling the country with his dog, Toby, and his box of delights. Arriving at Tatchester, Kay is delighted to learn that he will be joined at his guardian’s house by Mariah and Peter Jones (Safiyya Ingar and Samuel Simmonds). He tells the two of them of his adventures on the train and the Punch and Judy man with his magical box. Unbeknown by Kay and the Joneses, their conversation is overheard by a rat (Molly Roberts) who takes the information on Kay and the box back to the mysterious and evil Abner Brown who is obsessed with owning the box. As Christmas draws closer, and the Bishop of Tatchester (Mark Extance) innocently prepares for the arrival of the one thousandth midnight mass, Will Kay, Mariah and Peter be able to thwart Abner Brown’s efforts to take the box and unleash himself on an unsuspecting world.
Like so many people, I remember the groundbreaking Box of Delights BBC television series which kept me and my family entranced in the weeks running up to Christmas in 1984. Producing a live action show seemed to me to be a very brave thing to attempt but I am really pleased to say, this production does it in style. We aren’t supposed to talk too much about the location but there really is something perfect in seeing this very 1930’s production in the faded splendour or Wilton’s Music Hall. It’s almost like the hall is a part of the production itself. Piers Torday’s adaptation is very faithful to the original and even though the clipped British accents and lack of concern shown by children who chat to strangers on the train willy-nilly may seem slightly out of place in early twenty-first century Britain, it still works. The whole narrative immediately takes one back to a more innocent time when everything was an adventure and the day would finish with afternoon tea of sandwiches and lashings of ginger beer. Who knows if those days ever really ever existed but it’s lovely to spend a couple of hours back there.
The characters are all beautifully drawn and brought to life in handsome style by a small cast that do a lot of doubling up and make each person unique. For example, I didn’t realise until right at the end that Sara Stewart played both Caroline Louisa and Pouncer. The characters were so different both physically and verbally, that it took me by surprise that there weren’t two actors taking a bow at the curtain call. Theo Ancient, Safiyya Ingar and Samuel Simmonds are a wonderful triumvirate as Kay, Mariah and Peter respectively. Theo really captures both Kay’s innocence and stiff ‘upper lip’ in a role that would be very easy to overplay into some sort of ‘Ripping Yarns’ parody. Safiyya is the ultimate tomboy as Mariah – a beautifully written character who throws all the rules about females in stories out of the window and then tramples on them – and obviously relishes the role she has. Finally, Samuel as Mariah’s rather put-upon brother Peter is the voice of reason – I totally agree that there is a time to give up on adventures and go up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire – but again, when needed he comes through for his sister and friend. The three actors’ characters together would be a complete handful for anyone but you also know you would have a wonderful time with them.
For a children’s story, Box of Delights is a quite dark tale. There is black magic, kidnapping, murder, drowning, wolves on the prowl and cheating at cards. But, the story is really well written and brilliantly adapted for the stage. Director Justin Audibert makes fantastic use of the old and the new to bring the story to life. Designer Tom Piper has created a wonderful multi-layer set with surprises behind every door. When combined with Nina Dunn’s video, Ed Lewis sound and Samuel Wyer’s amazing puppets – I’m still totally overawed by the Phoenix – The Box of Delights is a wonderful Christmas tale for young and old alike.
Review by Terry Eastham
The Christmas classic The Box of Delights by Piers Torday based on the novel by John Masefield returns to London’s most festive venue Wilton’s Music Hall in a wintery adventure full of magic, talking animals, and even a flying car…
The action-packed festive tale is based on the 1935 novel by Poet Laureate John Masefield and returns to the east London music hall after its critically-acclaimed and sold-out world premiere last year. The production makes a joyous return this Christmas, welcoming back some old faces and introducing some brand-new cast members, including Theo Ancient, no stranger to magic, fresh from playing Albus Potter in West End smash hit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Joining Theo is Nigel Betts (Emmerdale, Doctor Who) playing the dual role of Cole Hawlings and Abner Brown, with Sara Stewart (Doctor Foster, Unforgotten) as both dastardly Pouncer and kindly Caroline Louisa. Molly Roberts joins the cast playing Abner’s evil hench-rat.
Returning to the Wilton’s stage is Mark Extance as the Bishop of Tatchester, Safiyya Ingar as the boisterous Mariah, Tom Kanji as the mischievous Charles and Samuel Simmonds as Peter.
On the train home for the school holidays, schoolboy Kay Harker has a strange encounter with mysterious magician Cole Hawlings, who entrusts him with his Box of Delights, an enchanted object with powers Kay could only dream of. When Cole suddenly vanishes, and his arch enemy Abner Brown is will stop at nothing to get his hands on the Box, Kay and his friends find themselves in a magical world of time-travel, bewitchment and baddies as they fight to save the Box and even Christmas itself.
A co-production by Wilton’s Music Hall and Hero Productions
New cast members include Harry Potter and the Cursed Child West End star Theo Ancient, Emmerdale and Doctor Who’s Nigel Betts, Molly Roberts and Doctor Foster and Unforgotten’s Sara Stewart.
30 November 2018 – 5 January 2019