The Box of Delights – The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Writer: John Masefield

Adaptor: Piers Torday

Director: Justin Audibert

A spanking new RSC production that reimagines the eponymous Masefield children’s novel, qualified with the jeopardy teaser, When The Wolves Were Running, reveals a highly suggestive compendium of themes that might well have inspired both Susan Cooper’s series, The Dark Is Rising, a young boy drawn into The Hero’s Journey where time and place become magical, featuring pagan characters such as Herne The Hunter. Similarly, the heroine of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, Lyra, takes ownership of an alethiometer, a Golden Compass with horological/horoscope knobs on for unravelling mysteries, as with Kay’s Box of Delights. Who knows, it might also be argued,the precursor of the hand/held role-play fantasy Games console?

Few who can recall the 1984 BBC adaptation will ever forget the moment when the old Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings (tonight a sprightly and appositely surnamed Stephen Boxer) and donkey suddenly step out from a picture frame. Modern CGI? Take notes. OK, the Aerocar special effects were a bit dodgy, but then so was the Aerocar. Tonight they manage spiffingly with a few cast-off cupboard doors and a bicycle wheel – chocks away chaps.

To the plot: bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young Kay, back home for Christmas hols, is gifted a strange, magical box. The dastardly, scheming Aubry Brown and his clerically disguised ‘Wolves’ want to get their hands on it, notwithstanding kidnapping everyone from candle-snuffing altar-boy to The Archbishop, thus scuppering the 1000 year anniversary of Midnight Mass at Tatchester Cathedral – the utter swine.

Add some time travel, mythical creatures and shrinking to fit inside a mouse-hole and the final piece of the Masefield creative mystery jigsaw is complete: there must have been some seriously good LSD ( and not Kay’s swindled half-crown) going down in 1935.

But here comes the Curate’s Egg dilemma. Given that the central conceit of the novel rests on how a disparate cohort of children manage to overcome the despicable baddies when there are no responsible adults to be found looking after them, why are all their characters portrayed by adults? Adult actors, notwithstanding reaching out to the peak of their craft, can never convincingly assume the role of children, all probably less than twelve years old. Allowances are given to young female adults in pantomime, perhaps a Beanstalk Jack, or a ‘Turn Again’ Dick Whittington (and more of the pantomime tableau later). Why then? Surely the RSC has a bristling cohort of young actors eager to take on what are, in all honesty, the epitome of two-dimensional buttered eggs and fireside toasted- -crumpet stereotype characters to have some fun with? Protagonist, Kay, Callum Balmforth, in suited tweeds appearing more an inappropriately dressed parvenu at a shooting party, puts on a bravo performance seeking to embrace his inner child.

The Production team – Design, Lighting, Sound and Special Effects are having the time of their lives. Kay’s encounter with the Central Casting Lot ‘Wolves’ conmen on his train journey home is inspired wonder. Throughout the production, they do their best having to ‘big-up’ characters of the ‘Blah, blah, blah, bleedin’ kids,’ lampooned in The Comic Strip’s Five Go Mad In Dorset. A virtual-reality diorama of rushing, clickety-clack days of innocent, and not-so-innocent, bygone railway journeys, is a delicious delight in itself.

Production Manager, Carl Root, will have to hand out individual laurels for all this. Credit is due to writer, Piers Torday, for not feeling the cynical weight of the woke brigade’s skeletal hand on his shoulder demanding a Critical Race Theory deconstruction of privileged, middle-class white children indoctrinated by oppressive Anglo-Christian hegemony. It was of its time and place. And Masefield’s set-piece imaginaria are what are best remembered, more so often viewed through rose-tinted spectaculars, Torday has to abridge some turgid dialogues and, at times, ridiculous stumbles of expositional faith.

Larger than trouble and strife, Daisy Jones, is played with thigh-slapping piratical brio by Mae Munuo. A potential juvenile psychopath in need of sectioning sometime soon, she presses all the right buttons – even if they might be marked Fire Alarm/Nuclear Launch: that’s Strong Female Character sorted. Not so her brother, Peter (Jack Humphrey). His submission that he is just a ‘Plank’, qualified, inadvertently, by Kay as a ‘Tremendous Plank’, grates and projects as contrived. He’s been dealt a patsy as the comic relief fall-guy/boy, a stereotypical twit in schoolboy shorts and cap that doesn’t resonate with Masefield’s support-role characterisation. And being on Christmas holidays, why would he be in uniform? Ah! He’s a plank.

Richard Lynch, as Abner Brown, Head Baddie nemesis, has to work on very thin commons to elicit anything other than perilously close to default, OTT shouty pantomime villain. Likewise, his predatory gangster moll, Pouncer (Claire Price).

Perhaps, Torday and Director, Justin Audibert, might have gone for the Christmas Panto, ‘He’s Behind You!’ construct and be damned by the purists. And where were some proper Wolves? Barney, the hand puppet on steroids dog, got his centre-stage woof and wag scene-stealer profile after all. So why not some menacing, ‘proper’ Wolves? And time for some serious jeopardy! A few generous alternative interpretations have been taken already, so why not? There’s sparse occasion as it is for kids to be either on the edge of their seats or, even better still, hiding beneath them.

Masefield’s innovative leaps of narrative time and space settings get lavish homage with the Phoenix’s demise and rebirth, sympathetically underscored by the signature melody of Stravinsky’s Firebird. Likewise the shadow-puppet tableau. Perhaps the younger audiences will stifle a yawn during the plodding exposition and come away with marvelled memories of what a first-time experience of live theatre can offer. For adults, best to treasure the big picture and eschew the details. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.A qualified Christmas present treat.

Runs until 7 January 2024

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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  1. The delivery for much of the performance is very harsh and “shouty” with an aggressive tone. Not enjoyable!

  2. In short, it was boring and not up to the usual RSC creative standard. What a shame when it could have been so much more.

  3. The Guardian review got it right at two stars. **
    It was mannered and tedious. When one thinks of new playwrights ( and not so new playwrights) could have come up with something much more interesting and creative. A possible starting point might be NO projections can be used .


  4. Eight of us went to the production and all were rather disappointed. One of the reviews I read got it right in that the child characters were all played by adults in a rather too mannered way. It left the story confused and lost, quite a way from Christmas.
    The staging held things together but the lighting could have been better used and it didn’t help that the main stage flooring made movement around it by the players rather “clacking” (or they should have worn different soled shoes.

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