The Box of Delights,
John Masefield adapted by Piers Torday,
Royal Shakespeare Theatre,
Until January 7
Director: Justin Audibert
Cast: Nana Amoo-Gottfried, Callum Balmforth, Stephen Boxer, Melody Brown, Alex Cardall, Tom Chapman, Janet Etuk, Nia Gwynne, Jack Humphrey, Tom Kanji, Richard Lynch, Annette McLaughlin, Mae Munuo, Claire Price, Molly Roberts, Rhiannon Skerritt, Timothy Speyer, Rosie Wyatt
Originally produced for Wilton’s Music Hall in 2017.
Running time: approximately 2 hours 30 minutes, including interval
By turns, a happy child, a devastated orphan, a traumatised sailor, a beggar, a factory hand and ultimately the writer he had always wanted to be, John Masefield proved that dreams can come true – and when they do, they are all the more magical for the pain suffered on the way.
The secret to overcoming the obstacles is imagination, both to provide a refuge and to enable us to transcend the forces of darkness.
It is true for every generation and every age, and it explains the enduring power of Masefield’s Christmas classic, which the RSC has turned into a visual and emotional delight.
We begin in an attic with an orphaned boy and his grandad, who offers comfort and perspective and swiftly transports us into a long-ago dream.
Doubling is not so much expedient as central in a production in which people leave behind their everyday selves and men of religion are not what they seem.
Stephen Boxer – an apt surname given that “Boxers” refers to the group of devotees who watch the 1984 BBC version of “The Box of Delights” every Christmas – is soon no longer grandad but the magician and traveller Cole Hawlings.
The grandson Callum Balmforth becomes the bewildered, brave Kay Harker, travelling home from boarding school to “The Seekings” in snowy, northern England, for the closest thing an orphan can get to a family Christmas.
He shares it with fellow orphans Mae Munuo as the hilarious Maria Jones, who has no truck with Christmas sentimentality and is the perfect foil to Jack Humphrey as her timorous brother Peter, a “tremendous plank” who saves the day.
Published in 1935, “The Box of Delights”, before Narnia and long before Harry Potter, taps into our fascination with immortality, magic, and the triumph of good over evil.
The villains are led by Richard Lynch as Abner Brown, who rules from a mysterious Mission set above a network of caverns and a sluice gate to unleash torrents that take on additional menace in a world of extreme weather.
Rapt, on the edge of our seats, we are taken there as a perfectly judged combination of lighting and old-school theatrical effects force our imaginations to work.
When a glowing phoenix, with wings manipulated by actors emerges from it all, we are ready to believe it can fly and yet the strength of “The Box of Delights” derives from an adult awareness that it cannot. Any triumph over death and destruction is as temporary as a dream, but a triumph nonetheless.
Barbara Lewis © 2023.