sun 21/01/2018

The Box of Delights, Wilton's Music Hall review - children's classic novel transferred to stage | reviews, news & interviews

The Box of Delights, Wilton's Music Hall review - children's classic novel transferred to stage

The Box of Delights, Wilton's Music Hall review - children's classic novel transferred to stage

Matthew Kelly and Josefina Gabrielle provide double the value in John Masefield classic

Tarts and vicars party? Tom Kanji and Josefina Gabrielle villainous performancesAlastair Muir

Theatreland is currently awash with pantomimes and rehashes of A Christmas Carol, so all credit to this ambitious new production, an adaptation of the 1935 children’s book, The Box of Delights. Long before Narnia, poet laureate John Masefield was concocting tales of children dispatched to mysterious country houses for safekeeping but encountering deep magic, time travelling and talking animals. Serialised by the BBC in the mid-1980s, this new stage version is the work of children’s writer Piers Torday and takes full advantage of the wonderfully ramshackle Victorian relic that is Wilton’s Music Hall in the East End.

Although The Box of Delights is a distinctive break from Wilton’s panto tradition, director Justin Audibert has created something suitably seasonal. We meet orphan Kay Harker (Alistair Toovey) travelling from school to stay with his guardian for the Christmas holidays. Puppeteers hoist a tiny train in the air as the theatre fills with the throb of a steam engine and the actors sway about convincingly. Two dastardly baddies disguised as vicar and vamp appear in Kay’s carriage and dazzle him with card tricks before stealing his wallet. Matthew Kelly strides in as the enigmatic Cole Hawlings, an ancient magician who owns a magical casket which the villains crave. A tiny cast of eight means there’s much doubling up of parts, Kelly also plays the wicked rival, Abner Brown. He looks like he’s having splendid fun whichever role he's playing, at times a touch reminiscent of Brian Blessed booming out his lines (pictured below: Matthew Kelly and Alistair Toovey).Kay meets up with his cousins - the tomboyish Mariah (Safiyya Ingar), never happier than when she’s assembling a pistol, and the rather wimpish Peter (Samuel Simmonds) - and their adventures begin. There are spells, sorcery, disembodied heads and a mystical deer that declaims spooky warnings. There are wardrobes that turn into dungeons and threats of drowning in a sea of green cloth. Ingenious puppetry including a dog, a phoenix, a miniaturised child and a flying car work enchantingly while Nina Dunn’s film projections effectively evoke a wider world. 

The 1930s setting, inventive use of props and doubling-up of cast are reminiscent of the celebrated stage version of The 39 Steps, though it lacks that production's dazzlingly slick pace. A lot of credit should go to designer Tom Piper who certainly knows how to get the most out of a set primarily made up of old wardrobes and a couple of propped-up ladders. Wilton’s limited stage facilities always lend a faintly amateurish charm to their productions and its shabby-chic atmosphere certainly enhances The Box of Delights

Josefina Gabrielle is superb as both the vicious villainess Sylvia Pouncer and the children’s saintly guardian Carolina-Louisa – at one point she transfixes the audience with a beautiful solo rendition of "In the Bleak Midwinter". There’s some lovely comedy, too, when a group of carol singers belting out "We Three Kings" dwindle down to just one king as the baddies bag up choristers to take off to their lair. Occasionally one has the impression that Torday needed to be a lot more ruthless in his adaptation – there’s far too much expository dialogue that often confuses rather than clarifies. The first half is too long and younger theatre-goers will struggle to keep up with the plot, but there's enough theatrical magic here to make up for narrative longueurs

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