Casting the Runes[author-post-rating] (4/5 Stars)

This gripping adaptation of M.R. James’s classic ghost story Casting the Runes is a slick and perfectly-pitched hour of tense theatrical enjoyment. With excellent performances from both Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne, Box Tale Soup certainly succeeds in its aim to create professional, affordable theatre with only simple resources.

With a compelling plot that builds to a tense conclusion and has the power to elicit occasional gasps from the audience, Casting the Runes follows the story of Edward Dunning, an academic professor who specialises in debunking claims of supernatural activity. His scepticism is challenged when he incurs the wrath of the ominous alchemist Karswell; Rebecca Harrington, whose brother died after giving Karswell’s book a bad review, tries to help Dunning before it’s too late.

Both actors give outstanding performances, although Christophers shows especially impressive range in tackling all of the supporting characters. Her ability to reach different emotional states convincingly and almost instantly is extremely impressive, and in particular allows Harrington’s fear and grief to be properly affecting for the audience.

The occasional use of recorded music and the actors’ vocal skills is an excellent addition to the atmosphere and texture of the piece, and Dan Melrose, David Carden and Aiden Smith have created a considered original soundtrack that works extremely well. The production strikes the perfect balance between recorded and live sound, with nothing being added gratuitously, and sound effects are usually created in full view of the audience by the performers, which makes them more convincing and absorbing. The single slightly strange decision is at the opening of the show, when a full song is played while the performers stand motionless with their backs to the audience. At this point, without having established trust in the performers’ abilities, it is a questionable and weak beginning and doesn’t provide a fair start for what is otherwise an extremely well-judged show.

The set and props are all considered to the last detail, following a careful aesthetic of brown paper with highlights picked out in red; details of the costumes are also made subtly interesting with a material printed with extracts from Shakespeare, which seems in keeping with the company’s interest in bringing classics to life. Two versatile suitcases form the backbone of the set, and are presumably the eponymous boxes out of which the company create their tales. While at first the door is noticeably a little flimsy and small, this quickly becomes insignificant and by the climax of the piece it doesn’t detract from the power of Dunning’s terror when the handle starts to turn.

Casting the Runes is a skilled adaptation that embraces the possibilities provided by the theatrical form with considerable virtuosity. A model of what fringe theatre can be, and a company to watch out for.

Casting the Runes is playing at The Burrow @ The Warren until 1 June. For more information and tickets, see the Brighton Fringe website.