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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Chris Wiegand

The Box of Delights review – the RSC makes merry with Masefield’s fantasy

Callum Balmforth (Kay Harker), centre, in The Box of Delights, directed by Justin Audibert and designed by Tom Piper.
Deftly done … Callum Balmforth (Kay Harker), centre, in The Box of Delights at the Royal Shakespeare theatre. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Going small and swift are the magical transformations available to orphan Kay Harker from the mysterious box in John Masefield’s 1935 novel. The RSC’s new production goes big: bold video designs, aerial sequences, abundant puppetry, a sprawling and handsomely dressed cast, plus an eight-piece band. It’s swift, too, gliding through Kay’s travels to ancient times and his encounters with the 30s criminal underworld.

If the play loses some of the richly bewildering quality of Masefield’s storytelling, whose folklore envelops the reader like smoke, this is a well-crafted show that recognises Masefield’s place in the pantheon of fantasy novelists. It brings us, if not a lion, then wolves, a witch and a wardrobe, through which characters emerge in Tom Piper’s elegantly versatile set design.

Richard Lynch (Abner Brown) and Stephen Boxer (Cole Hawlings) in The Box of Delights.
Richard Lynch (Abner Brown) and Stephen Boxer (Cole Hawlings) in The Box of Delights. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Masefield, a former poet laureate, gave each chapter a rhyming couplet and interspersed the story with verse; his characters are “scrobbled” by kidnappers and danger is summoned by the haunting warning: “The wolves are running”. Piers Torday’s adaptation retains much of the idiosyncratic language, adds comedy to the menace, features plenty of carolling (including a wonderful set piece to open the second half) and gives Kay a more clearcut mission. It also uses an affecting modern-day framing device with Kay and his grandson, visiting for Christmas after his parents’ separation, underlining the novel’s view of the fragile preciousness of family. Torday also solves the problem of feeling deflated by the novel’s ending as he immediately establishes a dream world.

After unwelcome attention on a train – like Erich Kästner’s Emil a few years earlier – Kay befriends Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings, who hands him the gold-striped box that can send him into the past. When first brandished, with the glow of Prema Mehta’s splendid lighting design, it practically freezes time on stage. (Strange, perhaps, not to have a passing reference, here in Stratford, to the novel’s theory that Shakespeare once owned the box.)

Jack Humphrey (Peter Jones), Callum Balmforth (Kay Harker) and Mae Munuo (Maria Jones) in The Box of Delights.
Jack Humphrey (Peter Jones), Callum Balmforth (Kay Harker) and Mae Munuo (Maria Jones) in The Box of Delights. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Director Justin Audibert, who staged this adaptation at Wilton’s Music Hall in London in 2017, keeps a warm tone of wonder and merriment while Samuel Wyer’s spectacular puppetry ranges from Hawlings’ waggy mutt to a tiny Kay for his Borrowers-esque adventures and a phoenix with glowing eyes and fan wings.

The show could more vividly realise Hawlings’ conflict with wizard Abner Brown and – a sign of more secular times – loses the sense that a threat to the clergy could result in the end of Christmas altogether. But it is brilliantly acted across the board. Callum Balmforth is a sensitive Kay, his tone set just a little too often at stupefaction, and has a particularly charming scene in which he tries using slang on his guardian. Mae Munuo excels as Kay’s ebullient friend, as does Jack Humphrey playing her whiny brother. The sequence in which the trio experience the world as different animals, amid Nina Dunn and Matthew Brown’s resplendent video design, is beautifully achieved.

Stephen Boxer is a genial Hawlings, Richard Lynch an increasingly comical Abner and Claire Price relishes the expanded role of witch Sylvia Daisy Pouncer. Tom Kanji as a conman (“ha-ha … what?” languidly ending his sentences) is one of several to capture the feel of the era. It is all deftly done, not so much scrobbling as gently leading us into Masefield-land.

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