The Box of Delights

Reviewer's rating

I begin by affirming that the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Christmas Show for this year is a hit and that the staging is so imaginative and strong that in itself it captivates the young and the old in the audience.

The story is based on the John Masefield novel The Box of Delights. The staging is so striking that it’s worth attending the show with youngsters to introduce them to the excitement of stage craft at this level of imagination and professionalism The wonderful sets by Tom Piper and the time sensitive 1930s look he and the team have created help clarify the story’s time setting. The effects that make us see floods and cars that turn into planes and fly, the different playing levels and the acrobatic movement are endlessly exciting and inventive. I also truly enjoyed the puppetry (especially the dog Barney controlled by Rhiannon Skerritt) and I admired hugely the fine video support designed by Nina Dunn and Matthew Brown. The show is a treat in its visual strength and performance magic. For sheer theatrical imagination and effects and for its entertainment value I wanted to give this production full marks.

But I’m afraid that I’ve got a personal quibble. I simply wasn’t entirely convinced, especially in the first act’s setting up of the story, by the actual basic material of the tale. In the first act I  was also uncomfortable with the mannered approach to the acting. It got a lot of laughs, of course, and certainly fits in with the traditions of a British Christmas pantomime. I would have preferred a more naturalistic, straight-forward approach to adapting this kind of book.

I think C S Lewis and J R R Tolkein were better than John Masefield at this kind of fantasy aimed at simultaneously captivating children and engaging sophisticated adults who can understand the symbolism, satire and metaphors. I know that the novel by John Masefield was both influential and a success in its day. I’ve never read the book so can’t comment on how faithful the play script by Piers Torday is to the original.

But from this stage version I simply found I didn’t quite buy into the world of this fantasy completely. I found the stage presentation exciting but this particular fight of good and evil did not engage me emotionally. I did enjoy some of the wicked characters like the pantomime villains played by Tom Kanji, Nia Gwynne and Hana Amo-Gotfried, Tom Chapman’s Rat and his puppeteering, and Janet Etuk’s Herne the Hunter with those antlers. But I always felt a bit detached; enjoying what I was observing but not quite engaging. Maybe that was just my lack.

The creative team has done an exceptional job staging the story. It’s very strongly directed by Justin Audibert who has gotten committed performances from every single one of the actors. Kay Harker is played with a fine sense of dawning understanding and heroism by Callum Balmforth and Maria Jones is played with gusto and energy by Mae Munuo. I enjoyed the appealing interpretation of Mae’s brother Peter by Jack Humphrey and I liked their guardian, Caroline Louisa, as played by Annette McLaughlin.  Much praise is also due to Stephen Boxer as both the Good Magician, Cole Rawlings, and Granddad. Richard Lynch was memorably villainous as the evil Abner Brown.

The young audience sitting near me  were totally captivated by the theatrical effects all through the show. I congratulate the cast and creatives on a very finely produced and, especially in the second act, theatrically inventive staging. I also must give special mention to the music, the musicians and the musical direction.

But being a Christmas Curmudgeon, I personally wasn’t completely convinced by the basic material. Nevertheless I feel that this is still very much a show worth seeing and a theatrical Christmas treat.