The Box of Delights
Novel John Masefield 1935
Stage adaptation by Piers Torday 2017
Production at Wilton’s Music Hall December 1st 2017 – January 6th 2018
midwinter magic & mystery
I haven’t reviewed theatre on here before – but as a magpie of a writer, I love to share the bright and shiny things that catch my eye. Treasures come in many guises.
First of all, the theatre itself: Wilton’s Music Hall. A strange and wonderful mix of thoughtful conservation and beautiful decay. A more magical, non-Disney setting I’d find it hard to imagine.
Then the audience. I was concerned it was going to be largely old codgers like me who remembered the 1984 TV series with almost painful tenderness. But then the children turned up. As the fiercest critics I can think of, they were fully involved in the story. At one point, some of the youngest actually called out ‘No!’, much to my delight.
Now the music. To be honest, I waited in that dark and misty auditorium fingers crossed that it would be right. And it was. Those eerie, tingling notes from Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony set exactly the right tone – even for primary school pupils. As the play went on, there were carols, reprises in different keys and even Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols in the interval. I do wish I’d had chance to sing at the end – when I felt full of rejoicing – but that might just be me.
Let me comment on the staging – and forgive me if I get the terminology wrong. The dim and misty start was enticing, suggestive of mystery and magic. Throughout, the effects did not try to compete with the modern cinematic experience – how could they? Yet the children watched with fascination – and sometimes amusement. The train and the flying car were charming and the phoenix was fabulous – all with a lovely use of shadow and light. (Utterly right for this story).
The stage transformed into all sorts of places ( just as a playground can) and Kay entering into a picture became believable. Puppets gave us a shrunken boy, an Irish terrier and a bronze head. I wasn’t quite convinced by the Wayang-style shadow theatre – Cole Hawlings is a Punch and Judy man, after all, but the children were fine with it. There was also an enchantingly clever dance sequence – no spoilers!
Finally, the adaptation of John Masefield’s 309 page children’s story. How would it compare to the six-part TV series I loved so much? Of course, there isn’t time in a stage play to cover it all. You have to go for the heart of the story.
I was taken with Piers Torday’s emphasis on Kay Harker as an orphan right from the beginning. The implications of the fire that caused it created an emotional thread right through the whole piece. The structure of the storytelling became tighter than the rambling adventure yarn I recall. ( I hope I can learn a lot about editing from this.)
By contracting the numbers of players ( for example, having only two Jones children, Maria and Peter) it made their roles stronger. This was great – the pirate/highwaygirl Maria is one of my all-time favourite characters! Their roles were distinct and well-played: the gleeful villainy of Abner, the evil yet glamorous Pouncer, the ‘utter plank’ Peter (who redeems himself with brotherly affection for Kay) and the wise yet weird Cole Hawlings.
As a side note, the swift changes of costume, back projection and distinctive playing of two major roles by Matthew Kelly worked well. I wish the Herne the Hunter scenes had been a little longer – but loved the Bishop of Tatchester knowing Cole was from pagan times. That sense of all folk of the light united against evil underlies the whole tale.
Respect to all for using many well-loved words and phrases from the book: ‘the Purple Pim’, ‘scrobble’,’rumpage’ ‘time, tide and buttered eggs wait for no man’ for example. Welcome to us oldies, but also not patronising to the young audience it’s meant for. And a last dose of praise for the programme, or rather The Tatchester Times. Great fun with extras to enjoy after the show.
If you like midwinter magic and mystery, do go.