By Ralph McCubbin Howell
Directed by Hannah Smith
Presented by Trick of the Light Theatre
Circa Theatre, Wellington | July 8-19
I never saw the 2013 season of Trick of the Light’s The Road That Wasn’t There, but I can assure readers that this is a fine-tuned piece of theatre.
The season is conveniently placed in the school holidays, and I don’t think this is just a coincidence: The Road That Wasn’t There is a play children, their parents, and grandparents alike will love. There is balance between magic, mystery, and amusement; it doesn’t patronise children, nor does it become predictable for adults. The Road That Wasn’t There strikes a chord with [good] children’s literature such as Coraline, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Phantom Tollbooth.
The script, written by Ralph McCubbin Howell, is at once beautiful and poetic, and sparse and direct. Gabriel (Oliver de Rohan) returns to his hometown, St Bathens, to visit his mother, Maggie (Elle Wootton), whose odd behaviour is beginning to worry the community. McCubbin Howell interweaves a story from the past seamlessly into the present action, as Maggie shares with him the story of how she discovered a road leading to a town that never actually existed.
Maggie’s memory is re-enacted with puppets. Puppeteered by de Rohan, Wootton, and McCubbin Howell, their visual disfigurement (a product perhaps of their paper-mache construction)—albeit whimsical on introduction—alludes to a much more sinister twist later on. This visual element, coupled with shadow-puppetry that occurs side-stage is the shows bread-and-butter. Director Hannah Smith has paid close attention to the details: the way the shadow-road is revealed on the shadow-hill, the way that the [shadow] image moves from behind the screen as if a page has been turned. The literary element is stressed yet again, as boxes moved by actors at various stages in the play reveal ‘chapters’, signifying a progression of narrative. I have to ask myself later—what narrative exactly? I was too busy being lost in the action of being told a story within a story that I forgot I was simply being told a story.
Oliver de Rohan’s humble portrayal of Gabriel quickly becomes a performance highlight—his character abound with such comedic understatement spawns some of the loudest and longest cackles of the night. Wootton is also entertaining as too-oft knicker-wearing elderly Maggie, and she switches effortlessly to puppeteer the innocent, inquisitive 17-year-old Maggie.
Playwright McCubbin Howell also flaunts his acting talents, playing a range of characters including a nosey old lady, a police officer, and Blanket Man—a character mythologizing the Wellington icon.
Set construction by Nick Zwart comprises of strategically placed piles of cardboard boxes which are functional—depicting the clean-up of Maggie’s house, doubling as a coat/hat rack for Gabriel—and enabled swift scene changes.
Composition and sound design by Tane Upjohn-Beatson was consistent and cinematic throughout. It was original yet worked effortlessly within the conventions of the genre to supplement and respond to the action.
The Road That Wasn’t There promises a blissful one-hour escape for audiences of all ages.