Edinburgh Fringe 2023
Box Tale Soup’s new adaptation of M.R. James’ short story sees an incredulous expert of the occult have his cynical beliefs challenged when a run in with a dark figure starts a series of frightening events.
This ghostly yarn begins with a bit of a challenge. Rebecca (Antonia Christophers), played with a trusting curiosity that echoes Rachel Weisz in ‘The Mummy’, tells us that we all know someone who has felt, or heard, or seen something that cannot be explained. “Of course,” she continues, “You don’t believe it until you do. Once is all it takes.” One feels similarly about Box Tale Soup’s productions, as it is difficult not to be hooked by Christophers and co-artistic director Noel Byrne’s charming vision of M.R. James’ work. The set and props are made with recycled materials, the highlight of which are the puppets that are used as side characters throughout the play. The puppet for the dastardly Mr. Karswell is particularly menacing, and indeed I overheard a child having to be assured of its puppet-ness upon leaving.
The parts of this show that work best are the ones that happen with good, old-fashioned theatre magic. Unexplainable prop changes, efficient lighting, whispers that are just low enough to perhaps not even be real. And, of course, there are the performances of Christophers and Byrne that really make the piece. As Edward Dunning, the academic skeptic turned believer through a course of first-hand phantasmagoria, Noel Byrne is the perfect Everyman to lead the audience through this spine-tingling descent into dark magic. Christophers’ Rebecca is the sure-footed, capable hero whose past dealings with Karswell give her the experience that we know can get us to our final destination unscathed. There are some long set changes that break the tension a bit, but Christophers’ and Byrne’s genuine connection and chemistry bring you right back to where you’re meant to be.
M.R. James wrote his ghost stories as a treat for his colleagues at Cambridge during the Christmas season to enjoy over a sherry and a mince pie. It is with this exact spirit that it is best to watch ‘Casting the Runes’. Even in August, there is nothing more Christmassy than watching two passionate artists and their independent company take on a theatrical world that has migrated towards huge production costs, and still manage to scare the pants off you.