BWW Review: THE BOX OF DELIGHTS, Wilton's Music Hall
There's a balance to be struck as a reviewer. Some productions - especially at this time of year - have (relatively) bountiful budgets, wonderful sets, video projections, an excellent programme, starry casts and award-winning creatives. All of which raises expectations which would not attend a black box show in February quadruple cast to save money, the four actors' names printed on a grubby slice of A5 that you have to fish out of a pocket full of Tesco Express receipts. You don't judge chalk by its cheesiness after all.
Such considerations bubbled through my mind in the atmospheric auditorium at Wilton's Music Hall, as Dickensian (and hence, Christmassy) a venue as London offers. Justin Audibert's production of Piers Torday's adaptation of John Masefield's much loved Christmas novel, The Box of Delights, ticks all those expectation-raising er... boxes above, yet I left feeling I'd been promised Hotel Chocolat's finest and received a few old Quality Street coffee cremes instead.
Perhaps that's a little unfair, as there are moments that would wow even the biggest fans of Marvel's and DC's movies with the immediacy of theatre's SFX. Nina Dunn's video work, allied to Anna Watson's gorgeous lighting (in a tricky space), bring plenty of magical moment to the stage. The same is true of Samuel Wyer's puppets, with a treat for fans of the later Harry Potter movies thrown in. Tom Piper has provided a set full of dark recesses, doors and hidey-holes perfect for suggesting magic and mystery on long snowy nights where it all takes place.
It's the storytelling that lets things down. I got that we were in the 1930s, that Kay (a handwringingly overwrought Theo Ancient) had lost his parents in a fire for which he blamed himself and that there were baddies ("wolves") and goodies (kids and churchgoers), but that was pretty much it for me. The show exemplifies a rare (but by no means unique) flaw in theatre - a pedestrian pace caused by too much character establishment and backstory development, nevertheless leaving us none the wiser about why it's all going off out there.
Sure there was a box that had magical powers and a centuries-long feud between two magicians coming to a head - but I remained (appropriately) in the dark about why the carol singers were kidnapped and held in the cellars and why the box was stolen and recovered so swiftly (via a report of an incident frustratingly off stage) and why it all had to be done by Christmas. Maybe I wasn't concentrating fully, but this (despite a few Scooby-Dooish scary moments) is a show for all the family - so maybe I shouldn't have to?
One always feels a little for actors dealing with a less than clear script and there are some good performances to leaven the time spent trying to work out why their characters are behaving as they do. Safiyya Ingar will please lots of pre-teen girls with her bold and brave Mariah, Samuel Simmonds will (secretly, of course) tap into a lot of teenage boys' anxieties about just wanting to be left alone with a book (or X-Box) and Sara Stewart is very good as a sexy Weimarish witch.
I guess one should applaud all involved for not taking the easy way out and doing another take on Aladdin or Dick Whittington, but I was reminded of such ambitious shows that the Unicorn Theatre got right, year-in, year-out, primarily because they never lost sight of the fact that if the story isn't progressing, it's regressing.
Photo Nobby Clark