Wilton’s Music Hall, London – until 5 January 2019
Long, long before Harry Potter there was a gallant orphan, a boy dreamer sucked into a world of murderous magic, facing grief and responsibility alike. Two years before the Hobbits started worrying about the Ring there was another object entrusted to an innocent, a precious Box battled over by the forces of good and evil. Fifteen years before the Pevensies met the White Witch of Narnia there was the alarming Sylvia Daisy Pouncer, elegantly cold and murderously homicidal. And well before Pullman, there was a sense of important magic which came, as the mysterious old bearded Cole Hawkings says, in the “in-between times, the best times” between paganism and Christianity.
The poet laureate John Masefield is the ancestor of them all, in his children’s books picking up the wilful, rebellious spirit and casual familiarity with the magic of E. Nesbit and – as a fine lyrical poet with a sense of mischief – running with it in more evocative, magical prose than any. This novel – and its sequel The Midnight Folk – long ago gave me nightmares about Abner Brown and a pleasing sense that courage, hope, and a nibbin of mouldy cheese offered to a treacherous rat would get you through a lot in life.
So I went with glee to Justin Audibert’s production of the first novel about Kay Harker, elegantly adapted by Piers Torday. Kay – assisted by the fierce Maria Jones and her timid brother Peter – must struggle against Brown, Pouncer and the jewel-thieving fake vicar Charles, unassisted (as is vital in all good classic children’s fiction) by a rather neglectful guardian who leaves them all alone with just “the maid”.
Kay knows – from unsettling encounters on a train – that “the wolves are running tonight”. She, as befits a responsible adult, knows nothing. The wicked lot want not only the important Box but to cancel Christmas by sabotaging the Cathedral’s midnight service (there’s a nice carolling moment when each of the clergy and choir is kidnapped in turn, leaving the Bishop singing “We one king of Orient are” until they nab him too).
My reminiscent glee remained intact all the way through. There is always a risk, in adapting a 1930s novel where good prevails and culminates in a cathedral, of it being dismissed as retro and “charming”. And, indeed of being dismissed as posh-panto for middle-class parents anxious to avoid paying fifty quid a seat for high-tech effects and tired TV personalities doing blow-job jokes. But any child or inner-child should relish this more robustly, and not just for its humour and vigour and heart but for the sheer pleasure of its theatricality. The set is a gathering of wardrobes and drapes and ladders, toweringly using the full height of Wiltons; there is deft puppetry (I felt a sudden unexpected tear when the Phoenix appears to console Kay for his parents’ loss), some very fine trapdoor-work and scampering; there’s a lake of cloth becoming a starlit sky. The only high-tech is projection, very well used to create a village, a wood, a cathedral. Otherwise it does as children’s theatre always should: demonstrates that with a few props and sheets and a kitchen table and some well-chosen words you too could make the magic.
Theo Ancient is a fine Kay, and Safiyya Ingar a properly terrifying Maria, who likes guns, piracy, fights, and – brilliantly disconcertingly – the idea of “parties in dark basements with jazz and men wearing make-up” and reckons her future is “a steamer to Argentina”. It is salutary to reflect that in Masefield in 1935 and Ransome’s Nancy Blackett five years earlier the idea of a belligerent ,tough tomboy girl in breaking the rules of ladyhood in knickerbockers was welcomed. As for the evil Pouncer, Sara Stewart in a strict black bob is properly cool and deadly, looking rather like Mary Portas gone to the dark side; and Nigel Betts is both Abner the wicked and Hawlings the good.
So OK, take the kids to the big showbiz panto but bring them here too. And expect entertaining abuses of your kitchen table and household linen, in the very good cause of growing a proper offscreen imagination…
box office 020 7702 2789 (Mon-Fri, 11am-6pm) wiltons.org.uk
to 5 Jan