The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Christmas offering enchants Jessica Harris.
Visual spectacle and a heartwarming story are among the delights in this year’s Christmas box at the RSC. The Box of Delights is something of a 1930s meet-up between Gandalf, Voldemort and the Famous Five. Or, rather, the Famous Three, with an occasional appearance by Barney the dog. The Three are children: Kay, who is tasked by the magician Mr Hawlings to save Christmas from his nemesis, Abner Brown, and Kay’s accomplices, Maria and Peter. And it is the struggles of Kay, played by Callum Balmforth, Maria, played by Mae Munuo, and Peter, played by Jack Humphrey, that will hold the attention of younger audiences of this show.
The Christmas they are trying to save isn’t one of overblown consumerism or cheesy sentiment. Instead, it’s a Christmas where relationships are the essence. For Kay, an orphan, saving Christmas involves dealing with the tragic loss of his parents. The powers contained in the box of delights allow him to dream the impossible, to move through space and time, and to realise that, whilst those we love may be taken from us, the beauty of their memory doesn’t fade.
Staging and effects develop these threads and are, in themselves, magical. In the opening scene, the stage is dominated by large blocks covered in dark cloths, which stand forebodingly behind the action. As the story unfolds, so the cloths come off and the blocks take on new meanings, transforming from a train carriage to places of imprisonment to a marvellous car-o-plane. Lighting breathes life into each and transports the children to different environments.
Puppetry is used with great effect. A stunning phoenix, eyes ablaze, fills the stage with its beating wings, the choreography performed brilliantly by its puppeteers, whilst Barney the dog adds bounce and humour on every appearance. As the children battle the forces of evil, Kay and Maria fly above the stage and swim through shimmering waters. Surely this is every child’s fantasy.
Costumes add to the sense of period, with hats, overcoats and shoes sumptuous but subtle, drawing on colours of burgundy, brown and duck egg blue. Music, both instrumental and choral, announce the Noel whilst back projections turn the set into festive street scenes, show images of Kay’s parents and, finally, give us Santa’s sleigh.
Performances parody the 1930s: maids carry trays of teacups and children have the innocence of youth, rather than the knowingness of young adults. Tomboy Maria revels in the opportunity to dress as a pirate or to load a pistol whilst Peter, fresh from boarding school, uses terms such as “Oh cripes!” and asks endearingly if people think he is a plank. Elements of pantomime are used sparingly, with characters clearly good or bad. When the evil Abner Brown proclaimed to the audience that he is the greatest magician that ever lived, at least one child called back: “Oh no you aren’t”.
An overlong first act, where the plot tends to meander, is followed by a tighter second act, where focus is regained and loose ends tied up. All in all, this is a thoughtful piece that works on many levels. Whilst younger children may not keep up with the twists and turns, they will be fully absorbed by the staging, puppetry and special effects. And the significance of those who care for them will not be lost.
The Box of Delights was written by Piers Torday, and based on the novel by John Masefield. It was directed by Justin Audibert and designed by Tom Piper. Puppetry director and designer was Samuel Wyer and lighting designer was Prema Mehta.
It is on at the RSC in Stratford until 7th January 2024. For further information visit rsc.org.uk
Pics – Manuel Harlan (c) RSC.