Matthew Kelly and Alistair Toovey. Image by Alastair Muir.
The Box of Delights by Piers Torday / John Masefield – Wilton’s Music Hall, London
The Christmas combination of Wilton’s Music Hall and the Box of Delights is pretty much perfect. Wilton’s is perhaps the most atmospheric theatre in the country, a miraculously preserved jewel box of a space, fringed with flaked plaster and precariously supported on barley sugar columns. The Box of Delights, John Masefield’s 1938 children’s classic, is a book about a jewel box, which turns out to contain rather more than gems. It is also set in the snowy run-up to Christmas.
It is amazing no-one has thought of staging The Box of Delights before but apparently they never have. The books is both influential and intensely atmospheric, brimming with childhood adventure and deep magic, threats from the dark that can only be thwarted by Kay Harkins, back from school for the holidays. Best known in its 1984 BBC television adaptation, the book remains somewhat overlooked (although not as much as its prequel, The Midnight Folk). Justin Audibert’s direction emphasises the unique combination of ancient and modern that defines the book – medieval philosophers, witchcraft and the elixir of life mingle with machine guns, kidnapping and a futuristic flying car. Everything is cleverly rooted in Tom Pipers set of stacked, dust-sheeted wardrobes hidden, like the landscape, under a heavy fall of snow. As events unfold, the sheets are lifted and characters appear and disappear through closet doors, Narnia-style portals to locations in other times and places.
The guardian of the box is Merlin-like Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings, played by Matthew Kelly. Cunningly, he is also cast as Abner Brown, the evil genius with more than hint of Aleister Crowley. Both performances are of the high quality Kelly always delivers, but the play does not depend on him. The forces of the dark also include witch-about-town Mrs Pouncer, played with requisite poise by Josefina Gabrielle, and her jewel thief accomplice, a “What Ho!-ing” Tom Kanji. Ranged against them are Kay, onstage throughout in various sizes, played well by Alistair Toovey, and his friends, the adventure adverse Peter (Samuel Simmonds) and his sister Maria. The latter, a highly volatile Safiyya Ingar, is the book and the play’s best character, obsessed with gangsters and machine guns, and an absolute determination to cause trouble. If Masefield hadn’t got there first, a modern production might have felt the need to invent her to create a reasonable gender balance. As it is, one of the pleasures of The Box of Delights is that its two most charismatic, fearsome figures are female.
The tonal contrasts in Masefield’s book keep the reader guessing, and place it on a balancing point between modern England and the endless expanses of the past. The stage version is adapted by Piers Torday and remains faithful, for the most part, to the distinctive feel of the book. Torday retains enough of the 1930’s children’s slang to enliven the scenes with Kay, Maria and Peter, and sensibly slims the characters without sacrificing atmosphere. He does, disappointingly, feel the need to introduce a more emotional backstory, reminiscent of Harry Potter, for Kay, and a simplified, Disney-esque quest theme to “Save Christmas”. It is not clear why such original material needs to be made less distinctive to appeal to modern audiences, and it is rarely children who demand more conventional, rational story lines. However, the writing rolls along nicely for most of the evening. Audibert’s entertaining staging brings a daunting range of magic and drama to life. Cole Hawling’s dog and the miniaturised Kay are puppets, and trains and flying cars models on sticks. The slapstick elements – such as the ‘scrobbling’ of the entire Tatchester Cathedral choir, one by one -is gleefully played out, and a reservoir deluge becomes a vast sheet of blue silk.
The Box of Delights is a mesmerising evening of magic and tricks, holding the attention of children and adults with ease and Wilton’s is the perfect setting. The 1930s setting is both nostalgic – buttered eggs for tea and a posset before bed – and unsettling, as it should be. The programme authors should read the book more carefully though: the posset recipe they include is for a lemon dessert, not the same thing as “ a jorum of hot milk; and in that hot milk, Master Kay, you put a hegg, and you put a spoonful of treacle, and you put a grating of nutmeg, and you stir ’em well up, and you get into bed and then you take ’em down hot. And a posset like that, taken overnight will make a new man of you!“