For several decades, it was the habit of the acclaimed medieval scholar Montague Rhodes James (who died in 1936) to entertain his Christmas guests with an especially composed tale of the supernatural. Many of these remain classics of the English ghost story genre, with one, Casting the Runes, providing the inspiration for the much-loved 1957 British horror film Night of the Demon.
Box Tale Soup are not the first to bring Casting the Runes to the stage, but they certainly achieve it in their own particular style
Box Tale Soup are not the first to bring Casting the Runes to the stage, but they certainly achieve it in their own particular style, which for those unfamiliar with their work can be a tad unsettling to begin with – not least the performers’ habit of entering and leaving the stage with the company’s iconic suitcases containing their costumes. Initially this, and some overtly sinister music at the start is just too obvious and simplistic but, quite quickly, Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne pull their audience into a clearly defined world that becomes increasingly unsettling.
Byrne plays Professor Edward Dunning, a scholar (most of M.R. James’s heroes tended to be academics) and a firm sceptic when it comes to all things supernatural. His troubles begin when he rejects an academic paper on alchemy written by the mysterious Mr Karswell, whose dabblings in the supernatural may be more than just madness.
Christophers plays most of the supporting roles in the story, including Dunning’s main ally, Joanna Harrington, who believes that her late brother was an earlier victim of the alchemist’s machinations after giving his book a scornful review. In this, it should be pointed out that Box Tale Soup follow the lead of Night of the Demon, as in the original story the only female characters mentioned are someone’s wife and Dunning’s “Char woman”; indeed, Joanna becomes even more important in this telling than in the film. The mysterious Mr Karswell, meantime, is represented by a silent, gaunt puppet which is used sparingly and to chilling effect.
Arguably the human heart of this story is the startling disintegration of Dunning’s beliefs and confidence, portrayed with real commitment by Byrne. While Box Tale Soup do initially tease the audience with questions of whether everything that’s happening is genuinely supernatural (or just Karswell proving how good he is at psychological warfare), they – like the film – eventually come down on the side of the supernatural. That said, the exact nature of the ultimate threat is never defined. Some of the supporting characters may be realised with the broadest of strokes (and accents), but there’s no puppet demon here.
The sharp, economical writing may sometimes lack M.R. James’ voice (or even some of the good lines from the film adaptation), but this is certainly a brave – and largely successful – attempt to bring a classic horror story to new audiences.