10 December 2023
Writing: William Deakin-Radkov (Year 12)
Editing: Alexander Deakin-Radkov (Year 10)
On 10th December, it was with much excitement that I visited the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon to see the production of one of my favourite novels, ‘The Box of Delights’ by John Masefield. Set in 1935, the fantasy story tells an enchanting tale about a young boy who is given a magical box of delights to look after which gives him supernatural powers. He uses the box to travel through time and to visit different worlds in which he battles against scheming villains and deadly wolves amongst other things to save Christianity from the powers of evil.
I entered the mildly misty theatre in the round to see furniture strewn across the stage, covered in a blanket of musty, grey sheets and a prominent wardrobe centre-stage and half wondered if I had mistakenly walked in on an adaptation of ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ instead. It transpired that the production had been updated to have the main character, Kay Harker, fall asleep in an attic rather than on a train on his way home for the holidays.
The fantastical nature of the book set many challenges for a stage production. A clever use of video projections allowed Cole Hawlings to escape by walking into a picture on the wall and the elaborate and imaginative use of puppetry was a joy to see, especially the spectacular puppeteered phoenix and Hawlings’ sweet waggy-tailed barney dog. However, the use of a miniature doll to represent Kay Harker as he shrinks down to ‘small’ using the Box’s magic did not work as well.
The three main child characters - Kay, Peter and Maria - were all played by adults which was surprising. The actor playing Kay Harker, Callum Balmforth, conveyed wonder and innocence with ease, however, he overdid it from time to time portraying a slightly less-than-believable face of shocked stupefaction on several occasions. The part of Maria had been modernised giving her a much more key role and Mae Munuo definitely did a good job in commanding the audience’s attention. Tom Kanji, playing one of the two clergy villains, raised many laughs with his trademark “ha-ha-what”.
Director Justin Audibert had taken steps to update the story into modern, more secular times which I felt unfortunately removed some of the magic. And why scriptwriter Piers Torday felt it was necessary to include a new backstory about Kay’s parents having died in a fire - something that did not appear in the book, was unclear but felt more similar to Harry Potter than Kay Harker.
The role of Peter had been changed into a slightly weaker version of the helpful, loyal best friend of the story and had been made rather pompous. Most of the audience found this highly amusing, while the others looked on bemused.
Stephen Boxer was a credible Cole Hawlings, Robert Lynch as Abner was strong and cruel and Claire Prynce convinced as witch-like Sylia Daisy Pouncer.
The original book was filled with Christmas spirit. This was injected into this adaptation in periodic bursts by the integration of occasional carols sung by the chorus wearing top hats, ladies' bonnets, cloaks and holding lanterns, yet I felt this evoked more of a Dickensian feel, rather than Masefield.
All in all, it was a fun adaptation with some unusual, imaginative sequences and amusing moments but fell short of the book, in my opinion.
The production is ongoing at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon until the 7th of January.