Pros: A magical, festive feast of delights. A gorgeous production full of surprises.
Cons: The second act is so jam-packed with plot information it might make the younger ones a little confused.
I hope you are all starting feel the seasonal spirit? My festive cheer has certainly been given a boost by a visit to the first time staging of The Box of Delights by playwright Piers Torday, based on the 1935 novel by John Masefield. Both this book and the lovingly adapted 1984 TV version have a cult following. I hadn’t experienced either, and was hoping this production would hold its own without the crutch of nostalgic affection.
The heroic Kay Harker (Alistair Toovey) is travelling home from school for the holidays. On this eventful train journey where nothing is as it seems, he encounters a dubious, slippery couple who pickpocket him, followed by a mysterious elderly magician, Cole Hawlings (Matthew Kelly). Hawlings asks him to protect a powerful magical box for him. From then on in, Kay is charged with the duty of saving Christmas and the wolves are running…
Some have said the nature of the story, which involves elements like time travel, would leave it impossible to stage, but the amazing direction from the hugely talented Justin Audibert puts paid to this theory. The enchanting use of puppetry, mesmerising projections and the creepy underworld beneath the trap door together build an environment in which anything can happen. The otherworldliness lives on the stage before us. This is also in part thanks to the set, which is made of huge covered boxes and large 1930s wardrobes for entrances and exits through which all manner of creatures appear, and where time travel seems very possible.
The ensemble cast, who masterfully play multiple roles each, are a dynamic and accomplished group. Matthew Kelly as the curious Hawlings is exceptionally entertaining throughout. An Olivier Award-winning actor and on-screen family favourite, this was the first time I saw him on stage. I had no idea that he’s such a giant of a man, with a forceful presence and a glorious voice that makes the rafters rattle. My eight-year-old daughter came home imitating the impressive Safiyya Ingar as the plucky Mariah. What a fantastic female role! So brave, funny and fearless is this intrepid adventurer.
To say that Wilton’s Music Hall is incredibly charming would be an understatement. Hidden down a Narnia-like mews in Whitechapel, this venue was originally an alehouse back in 1743, before becoming a saloon theatre. It was eventually opened as a music hall in 1853 by John Wilton. Its dreamlike quality couldn’t have been more fitting if it had been purpose-built for the production. As soon as I crossed the threshold, I felt totally immersed, as if I was on a set myself. Wilton’s has an elegance about it, which is coupled with a raggedy charm. From our seats in the stalls there was a certain degree of neck craning involved, but you do get the full experience of feeling like you’re in an orchestral pit. The benefit is the overwhelming excitement of being so close to the action, which was a thrilling experience.
The story drags slightly in the second act, which is a shame. It still is a wonderful portion of the play, but it’s very heavy with plot information that, although necessary, could be a little confusing for younger ones. Nevertheless, this is a truly delightful, haunting production which will stay with me.
Author: Piers Torday, based on the novel by John Masefield
Director: Justin Audibert
Box Office: 020 7702 2789
Booking Link: https://www.wiltons.org.uk/whatson/365-the-box-of-delights
Booking Until: 6 January 2018