The early 20th century saw an explosion of creativity in regards to children’s literature, from the likes of JM Barrie, CS Lewis, PL Travers and L Frank Baum. All of these authors dealt with the mundane world adjacent to the magical. Among this illustrious group also sits John Masefield, who in 1935 wrote The Box of Delights. Made into a critically-acclaimed TV series in the 1980s, the production that’s currently running at Wilton’s Music Hall takes its cue from the original book.
The play begins in 1938 with public schoolboy Kay Harker (Theo Ancient) taking a train back to Candicote for the Christmas break. The journey is an eventful one, as he becomes entangled with characters both ‘foul and fair’. Of those who he finds suspcious, Sylvia Daisy Pouncer (Sara Stewart) and Charles (Tom Kanji) are top of the list. Cole Hawlings (Nigel Betts) meanwhile, elicits Kay’s trust naturally and shows him an artefact of great value – something that “the wolves” will do anything to obtain.
The use of projections, puppetry and billowing fabric onstage really adds to the occasion, but beyond the special effects, what actually brings the show to life are the well-defined characters. Safiyya Ingar’s ‘Mariah’ is arguably the most fun to watch, as her energy levels are cranked up to ‘11’ and the character isn’t the least bit inhibted by ‘doing the right thing’. In contrast, Samuel Simmonds as her hesitant, ‘boring’ brother Peter is a nice foil to her antics and highlights that not everyone has an innate spirit for adventure.
Stewart relishes playing a panto-esque villian who is cut from the same cloth as Cruella de Vil. Meanwhile, her frequent ‘companion’ Charles also has fun with the character’s faux accent and catchphrase (“Ha! What?”), plus plenty more laughs as the Police Inspector.
Although she doesn’t play one of the major characters, Molly Roberts is constantly on stage, showcasing her versatility in performing a number of roles: Herne the Hunter, ‘Rat’ and Abner’s Head – as well as some of the puppetry. Mark Extance’s ‘Bishop of Tatchester’ provides some unexpected moments of mirth in the second half, while the casting of Betts as both the ‘good’ Hawlings and the ‘bad’ Abner Brown subliminally suggests they’re two sides of the same coin…
As a character, Kay doesn’t have many ‘vices’ or distinguishing characteristics (asides from being enthusiastic and ‘moderate’ compared to Peter and Mariah). That said, the show’s denouement shows a different side to Kay and we see that his backstory has more than a touch of JK Rowling about it…
For those seeking an alternative to pantos and Peter Pan for family entertainment over Christmas, look no further than this enchanting tale.
© Michael Davis 2018
The Box of Delights – by John Masefield. Adapted by Piers Torday and directed by Justin Audibert.
The Box of Delights runs at Wilton’s Music Hall until 5th January 2019.