Magic Circle – Old Red Lion, London

Writer: Kim Newman

Director: Phil Lowe

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

The duo of James Hyland and Michael Shon really make the dense black box of the Old Red Lion’s stripped-back space work for them. They work with the gloom to present an effective, enjoyable and unnerving two-hander.

Part of the London Horror Festival, the piece is a good illustration of how cerebral a thrilling moment can be. Magic Circle does not rely on jumps and cheap shocks, but a fast-paced conversation and coherent set of arguments (with some good old-fashioned possession thrown in).

Character driven, we see Inspector Nicholas Gammell (Hyland) and Professor Harold Cutley (Shon) pit their wits against each other as the inspector looks to solve a case of multiple “unlawful killings” and the Professor tries to navigate the occult portal the killings supposedly opened. Set in the room where a student of Cutley’s and his followers made corpses of themselves and 14 other people, Cutley has drawn a symbol-filled chalk circle on the ground to protect himself from the evil spirits. “Nicker of the Yard” needs to get to the bottom of why the professor is here, and who was the 16th person in that deadly room.

Build on fast-paced dialogue between the investigating officer and the (as we learn) suspect, the work is a trip through esoterica – a mix of cod-astrology and niche beliefs here – and the logical representation of human law and order. It’s good – delivered with complete charisma from both actors and engaging for the audience. There’s comedy, as all good horror should have – which acts as a useful foil to the steadily rising sense of dread they engineer.

It’s key strength is somewhat of a downfall though. It’s a lot of talking, with the two trying to catch the other out with linguistic and logic tricks. It’s well conceived and executed, and the 90 minutes pass smoothly, but due to the sheer volume, it’s a little hard to track points and progress. As an audience member, keeping up with it all by letting the emotional rather than intellectual impact wash over us feels lazy, when there is such tension on stage.

Superb acting is the order of the day, with both men getting properly absorbed in their characters. They’re able to attract and retain attention for the duration – with the script as it is, however, more use of those gifts could be made. All credit to the writer Kim Newman and director Phil Lowe for creating something so full of material in 90 minutes, perhaps less is more though?

Ultimately, it’s quite a satisfying play – not horrifying, but certainly disturbing.

Runs until 22 October 2018 | Image: Contributed

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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