sat 20/07/2024

Edinburgh Fringe 2023 reviews: Casting the Runes / The Return / Woodhill | reviews, news & interviews

Edinburgh Fringe 2023 reviews: Casting the Runes / The Return / Woodhill

Edinburgh Fringe 2023 reviews: Casting the Runes / The Return / Woodhill

Sinister supernatural forces, a broken Balkan childhood and a scream of fury for prison reform in three varied shows

Chills and spills: Noel Byrne is an over-confident academic in Box Tale Soup's fluent MR James staging 'Casting the Runes'

Casting the Runes, Pleasance Courtyard 

A viciously critical review gets its unfortunate writer driven mad and sent to an untimely death in this adaptation of a macabre MR James chiller. In that case, I’d better be careful what I say about British movement and puppetry company Box Tale Soup’s fluent two-hand staging. Though to call their Casting the Runes a two-hander isn’t strictly correct: actors Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers (who also adapted the tale for the stage, adding in a few choice elements from elsewhere in James’s output) are joined by three puppets in supporting roles, plus a restlessly shape-shifting set, giving the whole show an enjoyably unsettling feeling of instability and dream-like irreality.

All the classic James elements are present and correct – the arrogant academic (a nicely no-nonsense, clipped-delivery Byrne) who pooh-poohs the suggestion that supernatural forces might be behind a mysterious recent death, the acolytes and helpers who try to warn him away, and the mysteriously unstable objects in his possession that hint at something dark afoot.

Though Box Tale Soup’s stage reworking builds to a nicely tense conclusion, it’s really all about atmosphere, something that director Adam Lenson manages expertly throughout, with a slow drip-drip of sinister details and suggestions scattered across the course of the show. It might not exactly keep you awake at night, but Casting the Runes will probably send a gentle shiver down your spine.

The ReturnThe Return, Pleasance Courtyard 

First an easy one: Croatia used to form part of which larger country? Then something more difficult: did Yugoslavia ever sign up to the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact? Natasha Stanic Mann’s fragile and deeply personal solo show delves deep into Balkan history, returning us to the apparent happiness of a childhood in communist Yugoslavia, then to teenage years amid the impossible-to-believe war that was tearing the country apart. Using folksong, dance and storytelling, Stanic Mann reflects wistfully on parallels between family and national history, as well as resettlement and new conceptions of home. Though its themes are compelling – and all the more relevant since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – The Return is nevertheless a somewhat slight, under-developed piece that seems to flit haphazardly between themes and formats, leaving the viewer somewhat trailing in its wake. There are good things in its content and visual ideas, but they need welding together more firmly before it becomes a properly convincing and revealing show.

WoodhillWoodhill, Summerhall 

Barnsley-founded LUNG is that rare thing: a campaigning theatre company whose explicitly stated mission is to let the voiceless be heard, inform, alter opinions and provoke change. They did that with enormous success with Trojan Horse, exposing unfounded allegations of extremism in Birmingham schools, and with Who Cares, telling the stories of unacknowledged underage carers.

New work Woodhill maintains those earlier productions’ blazing energy and righteous fury, but it takes us to some far darker places. Most of them are deep inside HMP Woodhill, opened in Milton Keynes in 1992, and the penal institution with the highest suicide rate in the UK. Through verbatim accounts from friends and relatives who lost loved ones there, Woodhill paints a harrowing picture of authority so drunk on its own power that it no longer cares, of a conveyor belt from early disadvantage straight to the prison gates, of families unable to grieve until they know how and why their loved ones died.

Woodhill is not without its own problems, though. Despite the powerful, gritted-teeth movement from dancers Tyler Brazao, Miah Robinson and Marina Climent – vividly conveying the meaning of the show’s spoken texts through Alexzandra Sarmiento’s muscular choreography – the texts themselves are sometimes too unclear, too smothered by Sami El-Enany’s dense score to hit home with the clarity they need. It’s a long, claustrophobic and relentless piece for an audience too, and one that offers little lightness or hope – no wonder trigger warnings are flagged up loudly at the start.

But this is nonetheless an astonishingly powerful, urgent piece of theatre, one that stares unflinchingly at families’ grief and official disregard, and demands better.

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