Review: RSC’s The Box of Delights is more a mixed bag on Stratford stage

Peter Ormerod reviews The Box of Delights, presented by the RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
Jack Humphrey, Callum Balmforth and Mae Munuo as Peter Jones, Kay Harker and Maria Jones (photo: Manuel Harlan)Jack Humphrey, Callum Balmforth and Mae Munuo as Peter Jones, Kay Harker and Maria Jones (photo: Manuel Harlan)
Jack Humphrey, Callum Balmforth and Mae Munuo as Peter Jones, Kay Harker and Maria Jones (photo: Manuel Harlan)

Imagination is pretty much everything in this adaptation of the classic tale, which has been part of so many family Christmases for generations.

Yet while the script and story celebrate imagination, the production itself seems curiously unwilling to trust it. The result is an evening of undoubted spectacle, but also of some confusion.

The Box of Delights ushered in a new age of children’s literature when it was published in 1935. It was written by John Masefield, then poet laureate, and blends folklore, fantasy, magic, adventure and, intriguingly, technology: there is a car that transforms into an aeroplane; the new-fangled telephone plays an important role; there is an all-knowing brass head that answers questions, like an Art Deco Alexa. It brings the ancient into the modern with wit and insight. And it is now something of a period piece itself: as with so many of the best children’s stories, it is rooted in time, yet timeless.

The Phoenix is one of the wondrous visions conjured by the Box (photo: Manuel Harlan)The Phoenix is one of the wondrous visions conjured by the Box (photo: Manuel Harlan)
The Phoenix is one of the wondrous visions conjured by the Box (photo: Manuel Harlan)

The book was first adapted by the BBC into a radio broadcast in 1943, thereafter becoming an annual festive favourite. But it may be best known today by the BBC’s television adaptation, first shown in 1984, which introduced millions to the boy Kay Harker, entrusted by a mysterious but enchanting travelling showman with a small box possessing great wonders. Kay and his friends are thus caught up in a tale of feuding magicians and hapless gangsters, battling over time and space to keep alive the celebration of Christmas, a festival encapsulating so many of the story’s themes.

It takes invention, effort and expertise to get all this on to a stage. And Justin Audibert’s production, first seen in more primitive form at Wilton’s Music Hall in 2017, does a fine job in many respects, using puppetry, projection and visual effects aplenty to conjure such eye-popping wonders as a phoenix and a mythical woodland. But it is also guilty of a failing that bedevils a fair few shows these days: a desire to spell everything out, to leave no gaps, to tell the audience what they should take from it.

This causes various problems. Piers Torday’s script is unduly wordy and, while it streamlines the story in some intelligent ways, adds strands that complicate matters. Not everything needs a backstory, and nor do we need explicitly ‘empowering’ messages; they may be more powerful were we to infer them for ourselves. The first half especially is apt to be overly frantic, and the set, although versatile, contributes to a general sense of clutter. The consequence is that there is little space for the audience’s own imagination to do its work.

There are no children in the cast, and some heavy-handedness ensues. Callum Balmforth is endearing enough as Kay, although his affectedly childlike delivery can be a little ponderous. Jack Humphrey raised laughs as the wimpish Peter, and Mae Munuo is strong as the fiercely independent and modern Maria. Stephen Boxer brings mischievous warmth to his role as the good magician, but seemed underused. Pleasingly arranged seasonal songs abound; these will increase in vigour as the festival approaches.

A box of some delights, then, but also of some disappointments. Maybe that’s Christmas for you.

Until January 7. Tickets: rsc.org.uk/the-box-of-delights/tickets

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