There is much to be uncovered at the start of this stage adaptation of The Box of Delights, in more ways than one. Everything was concealed with sheeting – there are no stage curtains at this venue for the set to hide behind. Set, rather specifically, according to the show’s programme, on ‘Tuesday 20th December 1938’ (and subsequent days leading up to Christmas Day itself), this is a period production, with costumes befitting the era.
The style in which some of the lines were delivered, however, was more 1830s than 1930s, with a considerable amount of melodrama. Naturalism couldn’t really permeate The Box of Delights in any event: the worldview is far from secular. That said, the Bishop of Tatchester (Mark Extance) seems to play Father Christmas himself during his (presumably full house) Christmas service, a departure from the usual religious platitudes about treasuring life and happiness over materialism.
The play is very plot-heavy, which is wonderful for people like me who have never seen the BBC Television series, first screened in 1984, or read John Masefield’s 1935 novel. But for whatever reason, perhaps in what I can only assume is a diligent and faithful commitment to bring as much of the original text ‘from page to stage’ as possible, the production drags, particularly in the second half, getting bogged down in the details of the storyline. The end result is that the play feels about twenty minutes longer than it ought to be.
Interval conversations indicated some concern about whether the younger members in the audience were able to follow everything going on. With the benefit of hindsight, I am unable to share such a viewpoint: this is an adaptation of a book written for children, and, at the risk of sounding terse, it’s not exactly rocket science. Young adult actors play the children: make of this what you will. Kay Harker (Alistair Toovey), Mariah Jones (Safiyya Ingar) and Peter Jones (Samuel Simmonds) are the adventurers. Cole Hawlings (Matthew Kelly, a suitably imposing presence, if a little peculiar) picks out Kay, returning home from boarding school back in the halcyon days when trains departed on time, as a rather unlikely custodian of The Box. Quite why it had to be Kay as opposed to anyone else wasn’t made clear as far as I could deduce, but this was hardly the salient point of the play.
There are three things The Box can accomplish, though I won’t say what they are here, and anyone who knows the story will know what those things are anyway. The key difference lies in the definition of the term ‘delights’ – in short, what one person finds delightful won’t appeal to someone else. It explains why Abner Brown (also Matthew Kelly; through inventive video technology, he ends up in one late scene playing both protagonist Hawlings and antagonist Brown at the same time) is obsessed with getting The Box for himself. If Brown were to take possession of The Box, his evil plans can be carried out with infinitely greater efficiency and effectiveness, y’see.
It would be disappointing, and downright weird, if, in a story of this nature, Brown won out in the end. The conclusion being easily predictable, some pleasure comes through the journey the audience is taken on. The animal puppetry, as well as providing a way for the production to work with neither children nor animals, is as good as it is in The Lion King. The concluding scene seemed to wrap everything up too abruptly, especially given the almost laborious narrative that came before.
Some humour comes through in the form of double meanings of phrases that are better suited to pantomime. Overall, this is a production that could really shine if it were more streamlined.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Box of Delights, a magical Christmas adventure packed with time travel, talking animals, flying cars, good versus evil and festive fun on Thursday 7th December at Wilton’s Music Hall, the most Christmassy venue in London.
Based on John Masefield’s 1935 festive novel and the subsequent BBC series which became an instant hit and cult classic, this is the first time the story of orphan Kay Harker, the boy that must save Christmas, has been adapted for the stage. Written by celebrated children’s author Piers Torday (The Last Wild trilogy, There May Be A Castle), directed by Justin Audibert with stunning design from Tom Piper and starring family favourite Matthew Kelly and West End star Josefina Gabrielle, this is a feast of yuletide fun guaranteed to get everyone in the Christmas spirit.
Writer – Piers Torday
Director – Justin Audibert
Designer – Tom Piper
Lighting Designer – Anna Watson
Video Designer – Nina Dunn
Composer and Sound Designer – Ed Lewis
Movement Director – Simon Pittman
Puppetry Designer – Samuel Wyer
Casting Director – Vicky Richardson
Dates: 01 December 2017 to 06 January 2018