Following their hugely successful run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year Box Tale Soup are now performing Casting the Runes, based on stories by M R James, at the Pleasance in north London, as part of their UK tour of the production directed by Adam Lenson.
Stylish, gripping and impeccably delivered
Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers are the writers and performers of the piece who have established themselves as leaders in the art of theatrical puppetry. They are also responsible for the set, props and costumes, all of which are made from recycled materials. Even without that factor they are quite remarkable. The three panels give the appearance of being made from the finest wood. Just as doors they would be impressive, but they also perform tricks. An arrangement of sliding windows make them particularly versatile, drop-down leafs form tables and seats with pullout supports and the reverses are painted as a bookcase. They are ingenious constructions that support the mystery of the plot. Similarly versatile are the four elegant standard lamps that are reconfigured to adorn interior sets and also to light streets and stations suggesting a same period air along with the suitcases that find many uses.
Creating the various locations could be a clumsy business, but the team has created an almost balletic style of choreographed movement that sees items delicately adjusted or relocated with graceful ease. Equal finesse is also applied to working the puppets. With a costume draped down the puppeteer’s arm the hand animates the mouth as words are spoken from behind. It’s remarkable how a character can come to life simply through a mask designed to make a vivid statement. Both actors have mastered this art, but Christophers has the most parts in this format and along with her role as the focussed Miss Harrington, uses a range of voices to convincing effect.
Using direct address to the audience we become the students attending Edward Dunning’s lecture, a device that draws us into the action and makes us feel part of the whole quest to understand the supernatural, of which he is an expert and a sceptic. At this stage in the play Byrne appears distinguished and confidently plays the self-assured authority on the subject.
That is all about to change, however, as he encounters the mysterious Mr. Karswell. His life now becomes a waking nightmare with sinister happenings at every turn, all related to the unfathomable runes he was handed and whose secret he must uncover before his time runs out and the dark presence finally catches up with him. The increasingly ghoulish events are enhanced by Dan Melrose’s original haunting score and lighting that is often dim and moody with flickers that that suggest the presence of powers beyond our senses, in the best tradition of Gothic horror stories. In a superbly measured performance, little by little Byrne reveals how Dunning is destroyed by these forces until he becomes a trembling wreck.
This production of Casting the Runes is stylish, gripping and impeccably delivered; a work in the best tradition of puppetry and acting.