4 stars out of 5
The Box of Delights review – the RSC makes merry with Masefield’s fantasy

Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon#

This is a well-crafted, brilliantly acted version of John Masefield’s novel about an orphan who travels through time

Chris Wiegand

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.

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.)

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