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Casting The Runes at The Pleasance | Review

Heading off on a national tour – culminating with three nights in London at the end of November – Box Tale Soup kicks off the spooky season with a two-handed, one-act, adaptation of M.R. James’ 1911 short story, Casting the Runes. Their work is awash with creative, Fringe-style touches – including a range of giant puppets (and skilled puppetry) that add a sense of the uncanny to an eerie tale. However, perhaps because the theatre just wasn’t dark enough (I personally wouldn’t have passed up any theatrical trick going to convey maximum creepiness) and despite the source material being from the godfather of the British ghost story, this production, directed by Adam Lenson, simply wasn’t scary nor particularly entertaining.

Cast the Runes. Credit Theatrical Solutions.
Cast the Runes. Credit Theatrical Solutions.

Writers and performers Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers play all roles, with the aid of life-sized puppets. They also appear on a ‘shape-shifting set’ – which is cleverly conceived in its versatility but sacrifices so much pace that it ultimately prevents essential tension from building. This production is also plagued by considerable received-pronunciation pontificating (in part: a characterisation choice in enacting Professor Edward Dunning’s scepticism) which made it hard for me to connect with the characters or much care about their dilemmas. The instinct to deliver a highly mannered performance is not necessarily the wrong one, but Lenson should have had his cast lean into it without fear of the obvious – whilst also possibly embracing some comic relief. It’s a shame, but the cleverness of the staging – with its beautifully crafted puppets and multi-use modular scenery – ultimately gets in the way of storytelling.

There are several scenes in which the cast create a ‘room’ for the ensuing action. Instead of providing clarity as to where we are and what is happening, the suspense ebbs away whilst Byrne and Christophers move vintage luggage across the floor. Although the giant puppets are without doubt impressive, it takes time to fetch them. This production probably could afford the cost to its pacing of deploying the mannequins, but, in return, it needs to find a more economical and fluid way – possibly drawing on lighting, sound and acting – to take us to different moments and moods.

There will always be a market for a good ghost story. If Box Tale Soup can ramp up the ghostliness and stay focused on the storytelling, fans of fright may be pleased with this show’s next stop on the tour. In the all-too-bright Pleasance, however, the action sadly felt more like an after-dinner talk than an immersive or emotionally engaging theatrical experience.

2 gold stars

Review by Mary Beer

‘Who is this who is coming?’

You are invited to the edge of your seat, on a journey to the darkest corners of the night… Expert on the so-called supernatural, Edward Dunning, is a scholar and a sceptic. But when he crosses paths with the mysterious Mr. Karswell, Dunning’s life becomes a waking nightmare.

A chilling new adaptation of MR James’ classic ghost stories featuring remarkable puppetry and a haunting original soundtrack.

Our advice? Don’t come alone…

Casting The Runes
19th Oct, 20th Oct & 21st Oct

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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