Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon – until 7th January 2024
Reviewed by Amarjeet Singh
The Box of Delights is a children’s fantasy novel written by John Masefield and published in 1935 to the delight of children everywhere. It was then developed into a 6-part television series broadcast in 1984 with the intention of creating “the ultimate in children’s drama”. It’s a combination of magic, adventure, imagination, hope and good triumphing evil. It sits in the hearts of those who encountered it when they were young and sits shoulder to shoulder with the best children’s stories.
Orphaned Kay Harker is returning from boarding school to spend Christmas with his governess and fellow young people whose parents are absent. During the train journey, he encounters both the sinister and beguiling, and thus begins his adventures where he finds himself embroiled in a battle between factors to possess a magical box. The box is unbelievably powerful, It allows the owner to shrink in size, to fly, to go into the past and to enter the magical world within the box itself. Kay goes on a journey of discovery as he protects the box from those who wish to use it for bad deeds and finds himself having to save his friends, to save Christmas and to finally come to terms with the loss of his parents.
Piers Torday took on a huge task to adapt this otherworldly behemoth onto the stage, but he pulls it off for the most part in a spectacularly Christmassy fashion. The script is overly wordy in some parts and sparse where it should really matter. Prolonging certain scenes with no real purpose and speeding through poignant crucial parts of the story seemed a very odd choice. However, that aside, condensing the book into a performance lasting just over 2 hours is a true achievement in itself.
Nina Dunn and Matthew Brown’s resplendent video design is astounding. Within moments we were transported from a train station to a house, to a craggy mountainside and then we were witnessing the magic, which was cast by the box, via projections. Along with ariel swings, swaths of material to represent water, boats appearing from no where and such clever and multipurpose uses of the static set, Director, Justin Audibert has achieved an utterly absorbing and fantastical play. Other than some clunky transitions, it’s truly a feast for the eyes.
Samuel Wyer’s puppetry is perfection. It’s such a surprise to see Barney the dog bound on stage with his ever-wagging tail and it’s exciting to witness a tiny Kay skulking in the shadows. The breath-taking phoenix was a sight to behold, made mobile by many hands with swirling fan wings and bejewelled lit up eyes and abdomen. Ed Lewis’ musical score included songs and carols sung by the cast adding a true Christmas like feel to the production.
It was wonderful to watch a truly diverse cast. Callum Balmforth is an enthusiastic Kay, his tone seemed to be stuck at perpetual surprise, some light and dark would have added some layers to the performance. His physicality and charm were endearing as were his puppeteering skills with Mini Kay. Mae Munuo gave a powerhouse performance as Maria, shooting from the hip, oozing with sass, a true joy to watch. Jack Humphrey was a fabulous ying to her yang, playing her rather wet brother. Stephen Boxer is an arresting Hawlings, Richard Lynch an increasingly comical Abner, although again, some light and dark in his performance would have given it more depth. Claire Price was resplendent as witch/crook Sylvia Daisy Pouncer. Rhiannon Skerritt did a fabulous job puppeteering Barney as well as being part of the ensemble. Tom Chapman as the Rat was superb. Nana Amoo-Gottfried and Tom Kanji as the conmen were easily my standout favourites, the latter raising many a laugh, for all the right reasons.
The Box of Delights is a truly enjoyable Christmas production. Magical, uplifting, mysterious and enchanting, it was lovely to watch. There are a few tweaks which if made would enhance the performance but ultimately it’s a fun filled festive treat which would absolutely delight all the family.