Writer: Piers Torday
Director: Justin Audibert
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
This year, theatreland seems to be offering a greater variety of Christmas shows than ever before; while there are still plenty of familiar pantos and festive cabarets, the more unusual offerings are much easier to find. The Pleasance has the horror-drag show How to Catch a Krampus, the Union Theatre is focusing on the redemptive power of New Year’s Eve in Striking 12, while Wilton’s Music Hall revives an adaptation of John Masefield’s fantasy-adventure novel The Box of Delights.
On the train to his guardian’s home, the young Kay Harding (Theo Ancient) encounters a number of mysterious strangers, first Cole Hawlings (Nigel Betts) who runs a Punch and Judy show and then two con artists who steal his wallet. Later in the village, Kay encounters Hawlings again who asks him to take care of the mysterious box of delights. As his friends disappear one by one, Kay uncovers a dastardly plot that will take him on an unusual adventure in the fight to save Christmas.
There is no denying the imaginative scale of Piers Torday’s adaptation and director Justin Audibert’s staging, which uses projection and puppetry to add a cinematic scale to this revival. Nina Dunn’s video design of swirling snowstorms and flooded bunkers is genuinely astounding, taking the audience from Kay’s train carriage to a magical wood and the dangerous lair of villain Abner Brown.
But it is the smaller touches that prove most enchanting, as the original story of two competing sorcerers is charmingly rendered in silhouette against a floating screen and most impressive a painting is brought to life as Hawlings becomes a character hiding within the snowy scene. Along with Tom Piper’s set which has plenty of cubby holes, wardrobes and pits for the characters to disappear into, the whole piece is a nicely atmospheric festive mystery.
Yet the quality of the visually effects cannot entirely disguise a story that becomes increasingly convoluted and hard to follow, which towards the end of each Act starts to feel its 2 hour and 15-minute run-time. There is a lot of story to keep track of, not just Abner Brown’s (also played by Betts) plot to abduct everyone in Kay’s life until he finds the box, but there are subplots within the robber group who conspire against Brown (Sara Stewart and Tom Kanji), there are backstories for Brown and Hawlings who also has an elixir of life, as well as for Kay who lost his parents, and the various magical worlds the box itself creates just for fun.
The effect can be confusing for the viewer with overly protracted scenes that don’t really advance the plot, while character motivations are a little hazy. It’s not until a second act recap that it becomes clear that Brown is abducting the local clergy in order to stop Christmas – although how and why this would work is not explained – and if he fails to reclaim the box of delights then he’ll stay mortal forever. A lot of the details is vague, especially why this Christmas and not the many hundred he’s lived through before, why the box was stolen from him in the first place and what terrible things he plans for the world if he gets it back just never make sense. There is a 7-years+ age advice for the show but even those a few decades further on may be equally confounded.
This production of The Box of Delights nicely evokes the spirit of Edwardian adventure stories that will chime well with lovers of the later work of C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. It is densely plotted and not entirely well explained, but there is plenty of magic and spectacle to enjoy in a visual approach which is a real high point in a year of unusual Christmas shows.
Until 5 January 2019 | Image: Nobby Clark