The play is based on the much loved but often critically overlooked 1935 festive children’s book The Box of Delights by Poet Laureate John Masefield. It has been adapted for the stage by children’s novelist Piers Torday. With a boy as it’s central character, feuding magicians, a fiery phoenix, and a flying car, The Box of Delights is a narrative precursor to the Narnia and Harry Potter tales
Once upon a time two great sorcerers, Ramon Lulli and Arnold of Todi, made a wager to see who was the strongest magician by inventing the most powerful magic. After a year, Ramon returned with an elixir, which would grant the drinker eternal life. Arnold now revealed his invention, a mysterious and wondrous Box of Delights, with dark powers. But then before Ramon eyes Arnold then disappears, taking his Box with him.
Centuries later, in 1935, orphan boy Kay Harker, is on a train travelling to his guardian for the holidays, when he is approached by mysterious entertainer Cole Hawlings who gives him a magical box. Kay finds himself drawn into an ancient mystical struggle as he tries to protect the box from the evil wizard Abner Brown, wolfish thieves and a wicked witch. Kay ends up fighting not only to save own his life, but also to save the magic of Christmas.
Piers Torday’s adaptation of Masefield’s tale which is set firmly in the past but also has a strong vision of the future, sometimes feels over-brimmed. However, Justin Audibert’s tight direction keeps all the fast-moving action coherent. The ensemble cast who often play multiple roles are all excellent, and work meticulously together. Nigel Betts duel-plays convincingly as the kindly magician Cole Hawling’s and also as his evil counterpart the nasty wizard Abner Brown, while Sara Stewart also doubles as a diamond stealing witch and as a kindly guardian. Theo Ancient plays an earnest Kay Hawkings, and Safiyya Ingar gives a high energy performance as the gun-toting tomboy Mariah.
The complex nature of the story, with time travel and multiple locations would once have made this tale very difficult to stage, however Nina Dunn’s inventive video projections evocatively usher us into other dimensions while Ed Lewis’ sound design gives the story the epic feel it needs.
Wilton’s Music Hall couldn’t have been more atmospherically fitting as a avenue for this production, and Tom Piper’s set of port-key wardrobes, storage boxes and trap-doors compliment the space perfectly.
The Box of Delights plays for a limited run of 45 performances until 5th January 2019. Grab tickets while you can.