sat 24/08/2019

The Box of Delights, Wilton's Music Hall review - captivating adaptation of John Masefield's darkly thrilling novel | reviews, news & interviews

The Box of Delights, Wilton's Music Hall review - captivating adaptation of John Masefield's darkly thrilling novel

The Box of Delights, Wilton's Music Hall review - captivating adaptation of John Masefield's darkly thrilling novel

Justin Audibert's production excels at portraying the book's alchemical qualities

Theatrical alchemy: the rising of the phoenix shows how perfectly this production captures the novel

If you’re looking for a Christmas with more pagan edge than saccharine cheer, where the wolves are howling and the mythological characters are steeped in the terror and mystery of winter’s long dark nights, then make haste to Wilton’s Music Hall. For the second year running, this adaptation of John Masefield’s chillingly beautiful 1935 novel ­– in which a child with a magical box is caught up in an elemental battle between good and evil – takes audiences on a darkly thrilling quest to save Christmas.

From the moment you walk into the auditorium of Wilton’s Music Hall, where the gloaming is studded by a lone Christmas tree and the air rings with the voices of cathedral choristers singing carols, you know you’re in good hands. Tom Piper’s design fills the stage with creaking ancient wardrobes, upside down chairs, and ladders rising upwards like stark winter trees – a gentle reminder that even before Narnia, rooms of old furniture were full of imaginative potential for curious children.

The vamp Pouncer is gloriously part Cruella de Vil, part midwinter revel-without-a-cause

Soon Theo Ancient’s Kay Harker appears to describe his journey home from school on a train in which he encounters a travelling Punch and Judy performer and two shady characters who play cards with him before stealing his purse. As he talks, the visual magic of Justin Audibert’s production begins to weave its spell. A guard carrying a tiny lit steam-train walks through the auditorium, while Nina Dunn’s captivatingly elliptical video design flashes snatches of scenery onto drapes hung over the wardrobes, to give the sense of rushing through a mystery-filled winter landscape.

Masefield’s book has been adapted by the acclaimed children’s author Piers Torday, who in a fascinating programme note describes how it blends "the folkloric mysticism of Albion with the lurid criminalities of the jazz age". It’s a brilliant insight. We are beguiled by the mysticism invoked in the central story – in which Kay must guard the magical box given to him by travelling performer Cole Hawlings so it doesn’t fall into the hands of villain Abner Brown. Yet Abner’s accomplices – wonderfully portrayed as a jewel thief and a vamp straight out of film noir territory – are a fantastic reminder of more worldly battles between the good and the glamorously bad.

The true test of any production of The Box of Delights, though, is its ability to convey the alchemical qualities of what happens when the lid of the box is opened, and myth and reality intertwine. And it’s here that Audibert’s production really excels itself. In one of his earliest encounters with Hawlings, Kay Harker tells him that the bird he most wants to see is the phoenix. The production team brings that moment alive through a combination of Samuel Wyer’s elegant swooping puppetry – in which the phoenix’s intricately laced body is lit from within by a red light – and the projection of rushing fire onto the backdrop.The Box of Delights A certain cross-section of the audience which comes to watch the show will bring with them memories of the 1984 TV adaptation. Watched now, those televisual animation sequences – which then seemed quite revolutionary – are extremely dated, and are very much surpassed by this production. Beyond that, the music, which was simultaneously magically original and based strongly on traditional Christmas carols, was intrinsic to the TV show’s charms. Happily Ed Lewis’s composition and sound design is able to incorporate the original score, as well as building a soundscape that subtly enhances all that is sinister and enervating about the plot.

We live in an age that continually challenges children’s literature to produce positive female role models. One of the most brilliant aspects of Masefield’s novel is that Kay’s friend Mariah – here played with gutsy vigour by Safiyya Ingar – was fascinated by pistols even back in 1935, and therefore translates effortlessly to the 21st century. As the vamp Pouncer, Sara Stewart (pictured above, left) is gloriously part Cruella de Vil, part midwinter revel-without-a-cause. On the side of the Y-chromosomes, Tom Kanji does excellent service both as a pompously clueless Inspector of Police and as her sidekick Charles.

At a time of the year when entertainment for children all-too-often involves regurgitated chart-songs and humour as unsubtle as a poke in your eye, The Box of Delights is a reminder of the potency of some of our oldest traditions. If you’re weary with the festive season’s assault on both your sense of cheer and your liver, this inspired production is a wonderful way to regain both its sense of magic and mystery.

@Hallibee1

The true test of any production of 'The Box of Delights' is its ability to convey the alchemical qualities of what happens when the lid of the box is opened, and myth and reality intertwine

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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