M.R. James short story Casting the Runes has previously featured in a number of high-profile adaptations, most notably 1957 cult horror Night of the Demon from auteur Jacques Tourneur, but now the classic ghost story comes to the stage as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from Box Tale Soup. Featuring some of the most sublime staging of the festival, the two person cast bring this rich gothic British horror tale to life through a mix of puppet work, dynamic direction, and powerful performances.
Expert on the supernatural yet inherently sceptical, scholar Edward Dunning crosses paths with occultist Mr Karswell after rejecting his paper. Finding Karswell’s dark magic creeping closer after unknowingly accepting his strange runic scribblings, Dunning finds his time running out before evil closes in and ushers in his demise.
There is a real elegance and classic charm to Box Tale Soup’s Casting the Runes, with director Adam Lenson crafting a creepingly uneasy sense of lingering horror. The production slowly unwinds the narrative of James’s story with a slow-burning sense of dread with Dunning slowly hit by inventively executed scares, which build to an unforgettable crescendo. With a small selection of props – four lights resembling vintage lamp-posts are manoeuvred across the stage, whilst extendable wooden boards are utilised with versatile skill. There is a real flexibility in the stage design – transporting audiences to lecture halls, Dunning’s home, train carriages, and streets.
The precision put into Casting the Runes is truly commendable, reflected in the incredible puppet designs. These expand the set of characters and scope of the play with impressive effect, with puppets skilfully operated by performers Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers, who also take on the roles of Dunning and Ms Harrington – the latter, a woman convinced Karswell was responsible for her brother’s death. The puppet of Mr Karswell in particular is particularly unnerving, likely to spark comparisons to Aleister Crowley, in its gothic black garb. It is truly fascinating watching Byrne and Christophers navigate these props and puppets across the stage, embedding them into the production with a slick confidence, only further immersing us in the production.
Casting the Runes packs some impressively executed scares into the production – a changing illustration showing a creeping figure edging closer to Dunning provides some spooky chills, whilst a suspenseful moment of an invader attempting to enter Dunning’s property delivers a masterfully crafted scare which is better left unspoiled. Music from composer Dan Melrose and inventive use of lighting enhance the thrills of this quintessentially British ghost story, one that does not rely on gore or jump scares but quiet slow-burning moments of unease.
Excellent character work from Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers ensures events are delivered with utmost conviction, whilst the impeccable craftsmanship utilised throughout Casting the Runes keeps this ghost story relentlessly tense and gleefully uneasy.
Casting the Runes runs until August 27th. Get tickets here.