The Box of Delights review: Captures the dreamlike strangeness of a much loved Christmas classic ★★★★
Condensing John Masefield’s 1935 story into a two-hour theatrical experience intensifies its eerie strangeness finds Ben Dowell
The Wolves are running... Say those words to anyone in their 40s or 50s who grew up in the UK and chances are they will be immediately transported to the 1980s and the BBC’s ground-breaking adaptation of John Masefield’s classic book.
Now that generation can relive the nostalgia with their children at Wilton’s Music Hall, a beautifully restored Victorian theatre in East London, where Piers Torday’s adaptation of Masefield’s 1935 classic is now playing. It even has the music of the original BBC series – a tinkling tune that segues into the Christmas carol The First Noel
What you may have forgotten is what a bizarre story it actually is. Whereas the TV show had the time and space to indulge Masefield’s many bizarre narrative leaps, it seems all the stranger and more dreamlike condensed into just over two hours of theatre. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The orphaned Kay is travelling to the provincial home of his guardian Caroline Louisa for Christmas, dressed in the requisite uniform of privately-educated 30s kid – shorts, cap, woollen scarf and trunk. This is a world of tea and crumpets and buttered eggs …and Christmas where it always snows.
En route he meets a creepy vicar called Charles (Tom Kanji) and his glamorous sidekick the Pouncer (Josefina Gabrielle, who also doubles up rather impressively as the much kinder guardian) who plays a card trick on the poor boy and steals his wallet. Kay then makes the acquaintance of a much cheerier Punch and Judy Man called Cole Hawlings who shows him the box of delights that allows its owner to become as small as a mouse, as swift as a falcon and to travel through time.
What follows is a madcap story of ancient feuds – Cole Hawlings is more than 1,000 years old and is striving to keep the box from his arch-enemy Abner Brown. Abner is a rival philosopher from the 14th century who needs to get the box back before Christmas; to do so he needs to stop the festivities by kidnapping clergy from the nearby cathedral. If that’s not peculiar enough, both Abner and Hawlings are played by Matthew Kelly, the former Stars in their Eyes presenter.
The casting is a directorial trick that would have worked better if Kelly had modulated his voice more. His kindly Hawlings sounds a little too like the dastardly Abner, even if Kelly imbues his baddie with lots of slimy slinks and hand gestures, adding a touch of lasciviousness to his larceny (especially when the Pouncer – whose name hints at her feline attributes – is about). The absurdist elements of the story – such as the clergy kidnapping – sit oddly alongside its more terrifying moments.
Alistair Toovey gives a jolly performance as Kay, as do Safiyya Ingar and Samuel Simmonds as his two lively young comrades Peter and Maria – with the latter reimagined by Torday as a much more strident, tomboyish tearaway.
There's so much activity it might be hard for younger children to keep up with the narrative. But while it’s not a perfect production, the confusing array of events and emotional registers is testament to the teeming imagination of the original storyteller. My advice? Just go with the dreamlike quality of Masefield’s moonstruck, weirdly magical tale, and you’re in for a treat. An odd one, though.
The Box of Delights is at Wilton's Music Hall until January 6 2018. Book tickets here