Words: Darren Scott
There’s Christmas magic in the air from the moment you step through the doors of Wilton’s Music Hall in London.
The listed building, hidden up a side street in the East End, is the oldest grand music hall in the world – meaning it would probably be described today as ‘shabby chic’. Dressed in paper chains and dried fruit, the venue lends itself perfectly to the era of The Box of Delights.
Originally a children’s novel by John Masefield, published and set in 1935, the fantasy story about a young boy, Kay Harker, has been adapted for radio several times, and is arguably best known for a BBC television series in 1984.
This stage adaptation, by Piers Torday, made its debut in December 2017 – again at Wilton’s Music Hall.
Having taken over 80 years to finally be realised as a live production, it’s refreshing that the creative team haven’t relied heavily on modern technologies to bring, what is, an extremely ambitious production to life.
As Kay (Theo Ancient, who recently starred in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) travels home for the Christmas holidays, he encounters a strange Punch and Judy man (Instagram stories, but with puppets) and some even stranger characters who appear to be after something the travelling entertainer has in his possession.
But what is The Box of Delights? And is it wonderful or dangerous? And can Kay keep his loved ones from harm as the evil Abner Brown tries to track down the box?
Piers Torday has done an incredible job of reworking the original novel – while still including some beautiful nods to the beloved television version – yet still retaining a simplistic charm in an increasingly difficult age.
Gone are many of the superfluous extra characters and scenes – in fact, the cast of eight double up as most of the lead players – along with many huge and now unnecessary scenes.
It’s wonderful that almost all of the most ambitious moments from the novel – shrinking in size, flying through the air, cars that turn into aeroplanes, a phoenix rising from the ashes and a huge, penultimate scene where a catacomb of cellars are flooded – are retained and brought to life with simplicity and charm in the simplest of stage settings.
Of course, the actors – several of which return from last year’s production – are also to be credited for making such scenes believable. At points you forget they’re even there when operating puppets, or helping to create the illusion that a character is swimming.
“My teachers tell me I am too dreamy to be clever,” says Kay. And while we might agree, Theo Ancient’s portrayal of Kay is breathless, wondrous and wide-eyed, like Matt Smith’s Doctor Who.
Safiyya Ingar returns as a brilliantly-updated Mariah – not that the original character wasn’t decades ahead of its time – and is once more an absolute joy. Samuel Simmonds also returns as Peter, with brilliant comic timing and expressions, getting most of the laughs from the audience.
Sara Stewart vamps it up wonderfully as Pouncer, a witch who looks like Catherine Zeta-Jones in Chicago, yet turns into the wide-eyed Caroline Louisa without missing a beat.
Nigel Betts is brilliant as both the friendly Cole Hawlings and the villainous Abner Brown. One moment, the person you’d trust with your life, the next an extremely sinister dark lord, stopping at nothing to get what he wants in some genuinely chilling moments.
With inventive staging and design and an old-school festive feeling throughout The Box of Delights is, without doubt, the best Christmas show in town. It is, as the characters would say, splendiferous!
The Box of Delights is at Wilton’s Music Hall, London until 5 January 2019. For details and tickets click here.
Images by Nobby Clark.