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Given its success at London’s Wilton’s Music Hall in 2017-18, it’s almost as much of a surprise that this is the first revival of The Box Of Delights as the fact that it took 80-odd years to bring it to the stage in the first place.

The play is based on the seminal children’s fantasy novel of the same name by John Masefield, which pitches orphaned schoolboy Kay Harker into a classic good versus evil battle between two powerful magicians, partly to protect the titular container, but ultimately to save his friends and Christmas itself.

The book is often cited as inspiration for the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, and Piers Torday’s creative adaptation offers nods to each. The stage is filled with wardrobes that offer doors into different dimensions, there’s a whiff of Middle-Earth about the ghostly appearances of antlered Herne the Hunter, and genial (as well as grey bearded) Punch and Judy man Cole Hawlings – one of the two wizards – could almost be Dumbledore’s sibling.

Whether the references are intentional or not is a moot point, but they arguably provide familiar touchstones that will appease younger audiences, especially those struggling to keep up with the occasionally convoluted plot, which contains elements of folklore, fascism, Chicago-style gangsters and even the jolly-jape stylings of the Famous Five.

Which sounds suitably all over the place – the box enables time travel after all – but in practice costs the narrative as a result, not least because the play is supposedly set at a crucial time in history (1938) but makes very little reference to the fact. And while the story takes place during advent, the production contains precious few Yuletide elements bar a few carols and a brief gift giving. The show arguably falls between the stools in terms of festive family audiences too, as it’s almost certainly too dark or complicated for the very young (it’s advertised for ages 7+), and likely to be a bit old-fashioned – but without the all-important historical context – for some older kids.

On the plus side, director Justin Audibert’s inventive production finds creative ways to bring shrinking people, mythical creatures, flying animals, magical paintings and underground rivers to the stage, and crucially manages to do so without making the characters secondary to the action and effects. That in turn enables the cast to excel, and all acquit themselves admirably, not least those tasked with playing the all-important youngsters. Callum Balmforth is suitably spellbound then inspired as Kay, the shy orphan forced to step up and save the day, Mae Munuo boundlessly energetic as tomboy Maria and Jack Humphrey brilliantly deadpan (as well as regularly scene-stealing) as her ‘plank’ brother Peter. Their performances, and some typically terrific sets, video effects and live music, make The Box Of Delights a worthy – and worthwhile – watch, but I can’t help thinking there’s an even better version still in that magical container.

3 stars

Reviewed by Steve Adams at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on Wednesday 8 November. The Box Of Delights continues to show at the theatre until 7 January 2024.