We are big fans of novelist and critic Kim Newman and its fair to say that we were fair gutted the last time his play Magic Circle came to London, because we were out of town at the time. Thankfully the London Horror Festival has ridden in to our rescue, so three cheers to Katy Danbury and her crew at the Old Red Lion Theatre.
Set in the early 1970s Magic Circle opens with trendy young university Professor Harold Cutley (Michael Shon) chalking himself into a protective chalk circle in Calme Manor. The house has been abandoned following a bloody ritual of human sacrifice that involved many of Cutley’s students and Cutley is determined to stand up against the demonic forces of Ophiuchus and prevent the world from falling into his hands.
Outside the circle is Inspector Nicholas Gammell (James Hyland) known as Nicker of the Yard, an old school copper, the kind of pork pie hatted detective who doesn’t mind breaking a few heads (especially of the long-haired hippy variety) so long as he gets the result he wants. What Gammell craves to discover is just who was responsible for the atrocity at the manor house and from where he’s standing the shaggy haired academic looks as if he’s the prime suspect. Only thing is Gammell has no real evidence, only his gut instinct, making Cutley invulnerable within his chalk circle.
Is Cutley the brains behind the Calme Manor massacre or is Gammell a manifestation of the demonic invasion force Cutley is trying to hold back with his arcane knowledge from within his Magic Circle?
Magic Circle is a fabulously entertaining two-handed piece of theatre, which benefits from having two extremely well-balanced and capable cast member. Each character goads the other over the 90 minute duration to get to their particular truth. Gammell is tough and cynical with a controlled fury that is just inches away from committing the sort of violence that he knows would terminate his career were he try it with a well-connected academic like Cutley. Cutley maintains his calm, fully understanding how it must infuriate the straight-laced copper, but also being aware of the very real supernatural danger he is protecting the world from. Newman’s dialogue is extremely clever, his magpie mind perfectly attuned to the cultural touch stones of the early 70s, capturing everything from ubiquitous Dennis Wheatley black magic paperbacks that sold in bucketloads back then to Roundsbotham the snake from The Sooty Show. Magic Circle while often being very funny proves to be anything but a comedy as the dramatic turn of events unfold towards the startling conclusion.
This double-headed approach reminded me in some degree of Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1973), only its The Offence as written by Dennis Wheatley. We give Magic Circle a big 666/666.
Magic Circle was written by Kim Newman and directed by Phil Low for Brother Wolf Productions in collaboration with Harrogate Theatre, with music and sound design by Chris Warner, costume design by Charlene Braniff, costume making by Katie Males and lighting and sound operation by Elle de Burgh.
The London Horror Festival is at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington from Sunday 7 October until Saturday 3 November. The Old Red Lion Theatre is at 418 St John Street, London EC1V 4NJ. Nearest tube is Angel on the Northern Line. Tickets from the London Horror Festival website or Old Red Lion Box Office 0333 012 4963.