'The Box of Delights' returns to Wiltons for Christmas 2018, with a cast that includes Theo Ancient, who played Albus Potter in 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child', as well as Nigel Betts ('Doctor Who') and Sara Stewart ('Unforgotten'). This review is from 2017.
Written in 1935, a couple of years before ‘The Hobbit’ and more than six decades before ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’, John Masefield’s ‘The Box of Delights' is the great grandaddy of the magician-walks-unexpectedly-into-small-person’s-life genre of fantasy novels. It is, in fact, a sequel to 1927’s more witch-centric ‘The Midnight Folk’. But it’s the more famous of the two, and there’s a generation of parents who will fondly remember the groundbreaking, part-animated BBC adaptation, first screened in 1984 and repeated throughout the ’80s.
This spirited stage version makes beautiful use of Wilton’s. The Victorian music hall may predate the book by the best part of a century, but both are relics of a bygone Britain. Tom Piper’s set is lovely: a series of old boxes and crates that look like they were just lying there on the stage double up as a huge, wintry world, animated by delightful puppetry and the odd slightly bargain-basement projection.
Like the TV series, Piers Torday’s adaptation expunges any reference to ‘The Midnight Folk’ and introduces us to hero Kay Harker without the need to know that this is his second adventure. A bright young orphan going home from school to see his guardian for Christmas, Kay is approached on the train by two groups of strangers: odd, avuncular Punch & Judy man Cole Hawlings (with his dog Toby); and a creepy couple – Charles and Sylvia – who ask a series of strange, insinuating questions before nicking his wallet.
He’s been sucked into yer basic good-versus-evil battle, with the immortal Hawlings entrusting Kay with The Box of Delights, an artefact of unfathomable power that enables evil wizard Abner Brown to travel through time.
The fact that both Cole and Abner are played by Matthew Kelly – the former with booming good cheer, the latter with camp relish – is kind of key to the tone here. It all gets a bit daft and pantomimic, with some cringey anachronisms thrown in for laughs (a joke about yoga) and a refusal to treat the story with the earnestness it seems to invite. But if it could stand to be a touch less larky, it is crisply told and offers a compelling, complete fantasy world. The primary school audience I watched it with were largely rapt. If you’ve read the first couple of Potters to your wee ones but aren’t ready for the more slab-like volumes, ‘The Box of Delights’ should be a perfect winter warmer.
Note this review was of the final preview performance