Richard Bratby

Magical: The Box of Delights, at Royal Shakespeare Theatre, reviewed

Plus: Tracy-Ann Oberman's Merchant of Venice shakes you to your core

The joyous stagecraft of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Box of Delights. Photo: Manuel Harlan / RSC

In Stratford-upon-Avon, the wolves are running. And if you’re old enough to feel a little thrill of wintery excitement at those words, you’ll have questions of your own about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Box of Delights. Questions about talking rats and flying cars, and whether time and tide and buttered eggs still wait for no man. John Masefield’s novel thrived on radio adaptations for decades after its publication in 1935 but the beloved BBC TV version was in 1984, and four decades is a horribly long time. Piers Torday’s new dramatisation faces the double challenge of entertaining a new generation of youngsters while also pleasing the nostalgia-addled oldies who are, after all, splashing the cash.

When did the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last see such a teeming, joyous abundance of stagecraft?

I can’t speak for the kids, although the ones at this Saturday matinee seemed rapt. The first scene is ominous – a modern-day Kay Harker (Callum Balmforth) dressed in a tracksuit – but don’t panic. A familiar harp motif (from Hely-Hutchinson’s Carol Symphony, as used in all those classic adaptations) is an early signal that we’re among friends and the director, Justin Audibert, quickly goes all-in on a snow-covered 1930s world of steam trains, possets and schoolboys in caps.

And all-in on the magic too: in Tom Piper’s designs a mountain of wooden wardrobes (a nice shout-out to another children’s classic) becomes a country house, Herne the Hunter’s forest and a tangle of half-timbered streets. Meanwhile Cole Hawlings (Stephen Boxer) vanishes into a painting, and video projections and rippling silk create an underwater world. There’s shadow puppetry and actual puppetry, including a beer-drinking, carol-singing dog. When did the RST – where scenery is usually treated as a micro-aggression – last see such a teeming, joyous abundance of stagecraft? Not since the Simon Russell Beale Tempest in 2016, I’d guess.

The nice thing is that Torday and Audibert resist any temptation to send Masefield up, or turn it into a panto.

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