There’s a wonderfully rough magic to Justin Audibert’s production of The Box of Delights that makes it the perfect choice for Wilton’s Music Hall’s festive show. And it is one that will have extra resonance for those of a generation similar to my own, whose childhood TV watching centred on a VHS copy of the 1984 TV adaptation, whose use of graphics and green screen hasn’t necessarily aged all that well (see around 14.30)…
The nods to the occasional naffness of that design (a car that turns into an aeroplane!) were much appreciated but such is the warmth and wit of the theatrical invention here, that it is hard not to be won over by Piers Torday’s adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 fantasy novel whether you’re familiar with it or not. And though it flirts with the odd sinister undertone, the abiding feel is one of adventurous derring-do and festive cheer, fit for whatever family you have around you.
Set in the depths of Christmas 1938, we’re in the world of plum puddings and hot possets, where schoolboy Kay Harker finds his journey home from boarding school disrupted by falling into the middle of a battle between two mighty magicians. Given the precious Box of Delights by one of them, he’s charged with protecting it – and by extension, the very future of Christmas itself – but little can prepare him for the magical power that is contained within.
Alistair Toovey is an engaging, wide-eyed lead as the rather prim Kay and he’s balanced well by Samuel Simmonds’ Peter (“be honest, am I an absolute plank?”) and Safiyya Ingar’s marvellously self-possessd Mariah (“a girl unafraid to wear a fake beard and throw a knife”). And the multi-roling company around them, covering mythological creatures, talking animals, nefarious gangsters and hapless policemen but name but a few of their characters, are well-delineated.
Visually, it is often stunning – in the exquisite beauty of how a phoenix is manifested in Samuel Wyer’s puppetry design, or the simple but powerfully effective use of a giant sweep of fabric by designer Tom Piper to evoke a torrent of water and all the danger it poses (Simon Pittman’s movement work coming into its own here). And there’s much use of projections (by Nina Dunn) to portray some of the more fantastical goings-on.
Audibert makes great use of music with composer and sound designer Ed Lewis, beautiful arrangements of carols interspersing the action. And when you have as superlative a singer as Josefina Gabrielle in your cast, why wouldn’t you let her fill this most atmospheric of rooms with the gorgeous sound of an unaccompanied ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’. Gabrielle doubles brilliantly as fruity villain Pouncer and somewhat ill-suited guardian Caroline Louisa, a feat matched by Matthew Kelly as the duelling sorcerers.
So a suitably festive alternative to your standard pantomime fare, and a great way to get young people into and aware of this most special of venues. It’s also an alleviation to at least some of my childhood nightmares (although there’s still something creepy about the whole shebang – just watch these opening credits – and that’s not even including the talking disembodied head). And make sure you get a programme, it is a little piece of absolute genius.