I was quite distressed at missing last year’s thigh-slapping panto, Roy Hudd’s Mother Goose which was apparently a corker, and this year’s seasonal offer at Wilton’s Music Hall is also an extravaganza but with a shift towards the bleaker side of Christmas, in the first ever stage adaptation of John Masefield’s popular 1930s mid-winter story, The Box of Delights. A dark tale of mystery, magic and folklore.

You could argue it’s a poor man’s 1930s version of the Old Vic’s Victorian A Christmas Carol, but with a top price of £35, that’s no bad thing – and for younger audiences the centering of the story on all round good egg orphan schoolboy Kay Harker and his male/female cousins is great for engagement.  It’s also interesting how similar they are to Harry, Ron and Hermione, fifty years before Ms Rowling dreamed up her moneyspinner.

We should applaud productions brave enough to kick against the seasonal schmaltz. From exciting trap doors in floors and cupboards, to a talking disembodied head and spectacular floods, Tom Piper’s stage set is a big draw. Ambitious projections lost out somewhat to the lighting, but Wilton’s natural acoustics beautifully compliment choral interjections of festive song. The trickery, the villains and the swashbuckling trio of brave cousins, also provided a healthy portion of mystery and adventure, and I defy you not to laugh at the sequential sandbagging of a choir until there are too few of them to render ‘We Three Kings …’.

It is an intensely woven narrative, and between the parallel story lines, time travel, and the cast playing multiple characters, it was impossible at times not to get tied in knots.  Suspecting this might be difficult for kids, I patronised an adjacent seven year old in the interval to ask how she was enjoying herself and whether she was following the story.  She wiped the floor with me by reciting a perfect synopsis of what had happened and a pretty observant speculation on what might be to come.

It made me think for a moment –  like Josefina Gabrielle’s deliciously vampish witch Pouncer – ‘I don’t approve of children being too clever’ – but I really did, and it was a delight this small girl got so much from the production.

The cast is impeccable – strongly led by Matthew Kelly as both the mysterious Punch and Judy man and his dark nemesis, and the trio of teens are portrayed with sustained excellence – Sam Simmonds‘ bookish Blytonesque Peter and Saffiya Ingar‘s feisty Maria like a young Claudia Winkelman nicely frame Alistair Toovey‘s thoughtfully drawn kindly and brave Kay.

And it has a limbless dog.  What more can you want ?

 

 

additional contribution by Philippa Ellis