Think of a British ghost-story author, and you’re probably thinking of MR James. Casting The Runes, one of his best-loved yarns, is the tale of an academic – Professor Dunning – who’s made a career of debunking the occult but, when he’s cursed by a rival he’s offended, is forced to question everything he believes. This visually-stylish adaptation delivers the requisite chills, but it’s most memorable for its powerhouse acting and cleverly transformative set.
Box Tale Soup are known for their puppetry, and many of the minor roles are played here in puppet form: the fussy librarian, the faithful assistant, and most strikingly the antagonist Mr Carswell, whose billowing cape simultaneously evokes an Edwardian gentleman and a malevolent wraith. As for that set, it’s filled with hidden compartments and secret tricks, delightfully revealed in precisely-choreographed movements between the two performers.
Compared to Box Tale Soup’s previous shows, though, Casting The Runes puts more of the focus on good old-fashioned human acting. Noel Byrne magnificently captures Dunning’s slow decline: the initial arrogance, the creeping doubts, the clawing horror and, finally, the soul-consuming terror. While the script offers Antonia Christophers fewer stand-out moments, she’s convincing as the reserved but determined Miss Harrington, and powers many of the expressive puppet cameos that complete the story.
The tone is atmospheric more than out-and-out scary – though it gets a little jumpier as we near the business end of the plot – and there were several points when I literally felt the hairs on my neck rise as the next chilling revelation oh-so-quietly seeped in. The adaptation is clever too: true to the spirit of the original but unafraid to tweak it for the stage, it cherry-picks some ideas from other MR James works to flesh out the classic storyline.
The subtle soundscape adds to the mood, while portentous flickers of the lights neatly highlight the presence of forces we don’t yet understand. Layering elegant visuals and endearing puppetry on a bedrock of quality acting, Casting The Runes is the complete Fringe package. You’ll curse yourself if you miss it.