Review: The Box of Delights. RSC Stratford

John Masefield’s 1935 magical folklore adventure, The Box of Delights, is reimagined for The RSC’s 2023 Christmas production. It promises much and delivers most of it. 

Piers Torday’s adaptation of the popular children’s book tells the story of orphan Kay Harker (Callum Balmforth) and his two temporarily parent-free cousins, the sassy gun-loving Maria (Mae Munuo) and Jack Humphrey’s fabulously foppish Peter, all three staying in Seekings House with their guardian, Caroline-Louisa (Annette McLaughlin) for Christmas. The magic and mystery of the original novel is certainly captured in this charming production, which allows Tom Piper’s set design to quite literally take centre stage, as the canvas for the tricks and illusions so central to the story. 

The plot is both simple and mysterious. On his way back from boarding school on a train, Kay meets a peculiar stranger – a “Punch and Judy man” called Cole Hawlings (Stephen Boxer), and his dog, Barney (an exceptionally beautiful puppet, expertly presented by Rhiannon Skerritt ) who warns Kay to watch out for when the wolves are running. Kay is also told about a magical time-travelling gold-striped  box, which Hawlings later entrusts to his care. The wolves turn out to be two hired jewel thieves who show up on the same train, dressed as priests, steal Kay’s money and leave him bewildered and concerned, as he escapes them to the sanctuary of Seekings House.

However, following break-ins, intrusions and kidnappings (or “scrobblings”) Kay, Maria and Peter find themselves in the middle of a centuries old revenge battle between Hawlings and head of a local criminal gang, Abner Brown (Richard Lynch) and his witch wife Sylvia Daisy Pouncer (Claire Price), who have hired the wolves to take the box.

With the threat of the cancellation of Christmas looming heavily, the three children take it upon themselves to harness the magic of the box and embark on an adventure of discovery, jewel heists, and imagination. 

The original novel’s 1930s distinct language style, and fascination with new technologies is certainly retained here, promoting playful realisations of the “Car-o-plane” and the second act’s  The Head (Molly Roberts) – Abner Brown’s familiar who appears to us like a hybrid of a reclaimed C3P0 and a sort of medieval Alexa.

The set is whimsical and magical – towering cupboards, bookcases and wardrobes are gradually revealed to us from under dustsheets as the play progresses, and form the backdrop to every scene from attics, to beneath a lake and finally to the great Tatchester Cathedral, with a clever use of not only construction innovation, but also projections and light shows, filling the auditorium with sparkles and magic. 

The action is well-paced but slightly disjointed, which does reflect the idiosyncratic style of the novel, but which when transferred to the stage is at times confusing, and while the play is full of trickery and illusion, this is presented as a mixture of clever surprise special effects , and as transformations where the mechanics and design of the trick is fully shown to us. Revealing the secrets of the staging like this may well reflect the idea of revealing a magician’s magic tricks, but in a play which is about mystery and magic, more unexplained theatre stagecraft would have been welcome

There are moments of real delight – when the children are introduced to Herne the Hunter (Janet Etuk) the guardian of the box, and the stage is transformed into the wild woods where the children physically become different animals, is a real highlight, and the performances are solid and strong – notably Tom Kanji’s jewel-thief Charles, who really captures the feel of the 1930s music hall villain (“haha, what…?” at the end of each phrase) and Melody Brown’s Mayor of Tatchester, who raises laughs with her eclectic performance. The inclusion of Christmas carols throughout is beautiful (this is a cast who really can sing) and there are set comedy-pieces reminiscent of pantomime, notably the start of the Act 2 where the entire clergy are “scrobbled” right in front of everyone’s eyes, which are really clever and well designed. But the stand-out highlight of the piece is Samuel Wyer’s exceptional puppetry design – from Barney the dog, to magical trains and an enormous phoenix who rightly had more than one outing on the stage, the use of this elevates the play to something which really lands as a piece of magical theatre.

The play is hefty for a family show, running at 2 hours and 43 minutes, and there are times where it feels like there’s a little too much style and not quite enough substance. We never really feel the jeopardy of the wizard’s rivalry, and whilst the play does have references to Christianity, with an entire plotline about the 1000th Christmas at Tatchester cathedral and the wolves disguised as priests, the connections in the novel with the clergy being scrobbled and the potential death of Christmas, are only just there, and don’t quite land. However, overall, the set, music and clever lighting, coupled with some solid performances, magical references and a healthy dose of festive spirit all combine to produce a slick, pretty and enjoyable production, which does the novel justice, and will certainly appeal to anyone looking to be delighted.

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