Review by Raphael Kohn
I love Christmas shows. Really, I do. So it will surprise nobody really that when the RSC announced its Christmasshow for 2023, The Box of Delights, I was, to put it mildly, delighted. But having been in the audience on the press night for this new production, it’s a shame to say I was less delighted, and while not quite underwhelmed, just ‘whelmed’.
It's an adaptation of a classic, yet somewhat forgotten, Christmas tale, best known for a 1984 TV adaptation. Based on John Masefield’s 1935 novel, it’s a story that has delighted children and adults alike since and still, in Piers Torday’s2017 adaptation (first premiered at Wilton’s Music Hall in London before receiving a brand-new production this year at the RSC), continues to try to enchant its audience.
Alas, ‘trying’ is the operative word in that sentence. It tries certainly to enchant, through the use of magic, illusion and clever stagecraft, but it only marginally succeeds. Torday’swriting is an interesting mix – partially intelligent lines that put a smile on the face of the audience – but often falls flat into boring and simply uninteresting dialogue that does nothing to bring us into the world of The Box of Delights, andfails to properly enchant.
And it’s not just the material writing of the individual lines. Each character has next to zero development each, with each person reduced down to little more than one-dimensional ideas of each character. There is so much that could have been done with the plot provided, with an interesting fantasy tale at play, but despite the long running time of this production, it feels as if we barely know each character by the end.
It's a shame, really. Masefield’s tale is an exciting one – of a child, Kay Harker, who is given a magical box to protect, giving him various magical powers and abilities. But with such gifts, he is also subject to being hunted by the ‘Wolves’, in this production never quite clear if these are even metaphorical wolves, allegorical for ‘stranger danger’ or indeed just… wolves. Whatever they are, they seek to get the titular box from Harker for their leader, Abner Brown, who wants it for his own use.
But beyond that, the story gets clouded and obscure. Why does Brown want the box from Harker? We find out far too late – kept in suspense for far too long without the motivation to know why. Who are the wolves? I’m still slightly in the dark about that one. It feels as if there’s a clear intention to recreate this 20th century tale for a 21st century audience, but somehow the full depths of the story aren’t quite explored here.
For some reason that I can’t quite understand myself, the ensembled performers all seem to slightly over-act their parts. To a degree it works in moments, with the children in the story all played by adult actors performing their roles as children, but it doesn’t quite carry through the whole production, instead becoming almost confusingly over-acted as the performers do their best to portray their parts with childlike innocence. It would be unfair of me to directly point the finger at any one person in particular – it’s a recurring motif in almost every performer – but as an artistic and performative choice, it simply did not work for me.
It's not all the performers, with some standouts truly stealing the show. There’s a great deal of humour brought to the stage by Jack Humphrey in his role as Peter, with his innocence yet sarcasm combining to produce a smile-inducing performance that enchants and entertains in equal measure. Impressing even more in a magnetic puppetry performance is RihannonSkerritt, whose only role in the play is to bring the dog Barney to life. And with such an intricacy and detail, using every part of the puppet and every possible moment to create an utterly convincing portrayal of Barney, she sells it completely with a terrific performance.
There’s magic too, in the clever illusion work created onstage and the jaw-dropping use of flying pulleys to lift the performers up into the air and fly them over the heads of the patrons in the stalls. It impresses greatly, and leaves even the coldest-hearted in surprise, as the leads take off into the air and soar. Floating above Tom Piper’s gorgeous set, they deliver their lines with passion, feet not touching the floor, which is a sight to behold. Piper’s set is, as one can expect from his previous work, a brilliant work of art, complete with a distressed proscenium not unlike his set for the RSC’s recent production of The Tempest, and plenty of trapdoors and lifts to bring actors up and down into the playing space. There are moments of wonder in Piper and director Justin Audibert’suse of puppetry (designed by Samuel Wyer) to bring to life a train, a car and various animals, indeed I only wished this magic could have continued more throughout the production.
Completing the creative work is Prema Mehta’s lighting, which illuminates the space primarily darkly, using the tools at her disposal sparely and intelligently, but ultimately successfully as the production builds its dark themes. Nina Dunn and Matthew Brown’s video design, used frequently throughout the production to orient us to the space and time of the scene, can be inconsistent, but importantly: when it works, it works. Creating spatial effects that are, quite frankly, dazzling, there’s true magic in some moments of their projections. These sync nicely with Ed Lewis’ cinematic score, which is beautiful and lush, even despite its small orchestration.
I really wish I could have loved The Box of Delights more. There was so much promise in the RSC’s new production, and I had so much hope for it. But sometimes, the elements of a show don’t quite work – some underwhelming writing, odd casting decisions and strange performance directions make this new work something that doesn’t quite gel together onstage properly. It’s not quite a box of delights this time around, unfortunately more of a folder of missed opportunities.
The Box Of Delights plays at the RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 7th January 2024. Tickets are available from: https://www.rsc.org.uk/the-box-of-delights/tickets
Photos by Manuel Harlan