December 1986. It’s the run up to Christmas and I have become obsessed by the BBC television adaption of John Masefield’s Box of Delights. It’s perfect in every way, from the twinkly rendition of the third movement of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony, to the snowy old English setting that melts into glorious effects laden high fantasy.
31 years later and I’m once again listening to the Carol Symphony, in the company of my daughter this time. And we’re not in front of the TV, but in the shabby, smoky surroundings of Wilton’s Music Hall in London.
We’re here for the very first stage version of John Masefield’s 1935 festive classic, written by children’s author Piers Torday, who produced one of my favourite Christmas stories of last year, the dreamy There Might be a Castle.
The stage is set with a collection of wardrobes and boxes covered in dust sheets which are gradually removed as the cast are revealed. We are introduced to Kay Harker, a boy on his way to spend Christmas with his guardian. Immediately he is waylaid by some unusual individuals, including a man with a shaggy dog and coat to match and a pair of suspicious missionaries. Very soon he is on a mission to save Christmas itself.
The man is Cole Hawlings, owner of the box of delights, who in the TV production was played to twinkle eyed perfection by the second Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton. Filling his shoes is another fixture of my ’80s telly landscape, Matthew Kelly who, since appearing on Game for a Laugh and Stars in their Eyes has emerged as an impressive stage actor. Tonight Matthew plays both of the plum roles, also bringing menace and more than a little camp to the role of baddy Abner Brown.
The small cast is excellent, with special plaudits going to newcomer Safiyya Ingar as Mariah (Maria in the book). Kay’s gun crazed young friend faces all situations with the same hard-nosed gangster-like approach. Her role boosted in Torday’s adaptation and the decision to pare down the number of children in this production makes great sense, giving the central trio a similar dynamic to Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione. The bickering is simply terrific.
Masefield’s book chucks everything at us – shrinking children, time-slips, metamorphosis, a ‘caroplane’, talking animals and much more. Amazingly it’s all here, conjured up inventively using puppetry, projection and sound effects. There’s even an animatronic talking head.
It could have been too much, but sensibly Torday and director Justin Audibert choose to extract the comic essence of the story. Masefield’s world is rooted in English folklore but set in a 1930s with contemporary references. At times it feels like we are actually watching a play called ‘Much Rumpaging in Little Coldicote.’ Arcane slang like ‘scrobbling’, ‘the purple pim’ and Kay’s admission to not having ‘a tosser to my kick’ are delivered with straight faces that makes them all the funnier. Torday even throws in a few contemporary references to Europe and yoga which manage to raise a laugh without puncturing the magic.
The unusual space of Wilton’s is used to great effect. One of the UK’s few remaining music halls it has enormous atmosphere and history that only adds to the feel of this production. The stage is small but the ceiling is high, and the cast are constantly up and down ladders and climbing on top of wardrobes, taking Masefield’s world to every corner of the set.
The Box of Delights delivers as both a faithful adaptation of one of the great early works of children’s literature, but also as a boisterous Christmas show befitting of the building in which it is being performed. My daughter and I left satisfied, as if we had spent an evening guzzling buttered eggs and drinking possets in the Bear’s Paw.