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A REMARKABLE ROMANTIC FANTASY

Print Version

Auckland Fringe 2013
THE ROAD THAT WASN'T THERE
Written by Ralph McCubbin Howell
Directed by Hannah Smith
presented by Trick of the Light Theatre

at The Basement, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland
From 24 Feb 2013 to 27 Feb 2013
[1hr]

Reviewed by Lexie Matheson, 26 Feb 2013


A wise karate instructor told me, when once I was having a crisis of confidence, that everyone can do karate but karate isn't for everyone.  

The same applies to the theatre. Anyone can stage a play but making ‘theatre' isn't for everyone. Add ‘making art' to the equation and the numbers capable of doing so successfully reduce exponentially.

Trick of the Light Theatre, make no mistake, make art – and beautiful, exotic and deeply moving art it truly is.

To experience The Road That Wasn't There on the same day the country mourns the passing of visual arts icon Ralph Hotere was particularly poignant as Trick of the Light's work is quintessentially Kiwi in the same way Hotere's is. It transcends boundaries and cultures, makes no apology for itself and provides no explanation as to why it is what it is. It simply is, and that's all.

At the heart of all good theatre is the narrative, and access to the narrative is provided by the storyteller. These two facets should link effortlessly and flawlessly into one creating something far bigger than either is alone. Too often the impact of a piece of theatre is lessened by poor storytelling or an inadequate narrative but in the case of The Road That Wasn't There the narrative is splendidly rich and unrestrained and the storytelling multifaceted and absolute.

I put this down to Trick of the Light Theatre finding a clever balance of extraordinary skill and fine attention to detail, the result being an eccentric, heart-filled, true-to-life saga of insightful wisdom and youthful acumen gone awry.

Yes, a saga. The titular tale is romanticised, tall, told by a praiseworthy, if unconventional, old woman and, surprising though it may seem, it is soundly anchored in the real world.

I suspect everyone has known a woman like Maggie or will at least have heard of one. They're so common in the highlands of Scotland and the northern isles that ballads by the dozen have been written about them and even Shakespeare's witches from the inviolable Scottish play fit the mould if you choose to see them that way.

Closer to home Margaret Mahy's work is peppered with them, Joy Cowley has created more than a few and it is in and around this genre of narrative that Ralph McCubbin Howell's absorbing chronicle lurks.

Nor is it a surprise to find the work set in St Bathans, a town aptly named after an historic abbey in Berwickshire on the Scottish borders but, here, stoically set in the wilds of Central Otago. Maggie's immigrant parents have beautifully worked Scottish Standard English accents, Dunedin is mentioned more than occasionally and, all in all, there is a decided Hebridean lilt to the whole thing.

In short – and hopefully giving little away – The Road That Wasn't There is narrated by Gabriel (Oliver de Rohan), the son of Maggie, who is stamping his mark on an unnamed Australian city far from the reach of his family and his past when he receives a number of phone calls suggesting he should come home to look after his Mum who, it would seem, has gone a bit loopy. 

Eventually he gives in and returns to the Central Otago township with its gold mining history, eccentric characters and legendary Kopuwai, a bad tempered, scaly, dog-headed human responsible for many horrifying neighborhood murders and who once captured a woman with a view to marrying her, only to find his worst fears realised. His mother has Takahēin the laundry, a washing machine full of apples and certainly seems to have lost the plot. 

What unfolds, however, is the delicious tale of a free spirit; a woman who is anything but mad; a woman who has the courage to map out her own life, make her own choices and live with the consequences whatever they may happen to be. This is the story, Gabriel tells us, of a girl who followed a man off the edge of the world and a truly magical tale it is. 

Playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell tells us in his Writer's Note that he plays fast and loose with the facts. He certainly does, but I'd suggest he goes much further and tampers delightfully with what we know about contemporary myth and folkloric legend as well. The piwakawaka is woven into the tale and for those who know the traditions surrounding this friendly, flickering, insectivorous fellow we could only wait for Howell to seamlessly plait it into his plot and we are not disappointed.

Legends, he says, aren't consigned to the past; they lurk in the shadows of our modern world to spring from the stories we tell every day. Hence the appearance, in puppet form, of the Blanket Man, a modern icon who, in Howell's eyes takes on all the mystique of Ronald Hugh Morrieson's Scarecrow: part mystic, part monster. 

I'm staying clear of the plot because every twist and turn – and there are myriad in the sixty minute journey – takes the witness, alone, into uncharted terrain where, we are reliably informed, ‘there is no patron saint of cartographers!' If you want to know more you know what to do.

The set (Nick Zwart) is a versatile collection of large brown cardboard cartons, some left, some right, some centre, one of which serves as a screen for some devilishly good and delightfully operated shadow puppets. Watch out for the resolution of the Captain Cook story. It, alone, is worth the admission price. 

The costumes (Nicola Holter) are unobtrusive but excellent and the lighting (Marcus McShane) is first-rate throughout. 

It was, however, the performances that the almost full opening night house marvelled at most. Here are three actor, singer, musician, puppeteers who truly know how to engage their audience and do so with flair, skill and the most wonderful craft imaginable.

Playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell plays Rosie Parker the neighbour – we all have one of these – Mr Panesh, Constable Good-One, Roland/Noland, Blanket Man and Father. Each of these enchanting vignettes is subtly and accurately observed and when you add a splendid voice and a skilful guitar to the already impressive mix you have a talent to envy.

Oliver de Rohan plays Gabriel, Walter/Retlaw and Father. Skilful narrative story telling is an art in itself and de Rohan is as good as it gets. His capacity to take us on a journey of the imagination and enable us to adroitly suspend our disbelief is truly outstanding. He is also blessed with a splendid voice and, like Howell, he's confident, assured and very impressive indeed. 

Elle Wootton plays the central character Maggie with an idiosyncratic charm that is both beguiling and sweetly delicate. She travels with ease and seamlessly from old woman to young woman to young child and back again without any of the ghastly trappings so often associated with young people playing characters decades older than themselves. Wootton is a deceptively clever actor, talented vocally, and with a capacity to express emotion with real clarity and honesty. Her performance is the absolute icing on an already excellent cake.

The trio sing like larks and the songs – composition (and sound design) by Tane Upjohn-Beatson – are beautifully evocative of the world of the play, and they also shrewdly carry the narrative as well where necessary. It's very special to hear actors who sing and who take such obvious pleasure in doing so. The excellence of the songs is symptomatic of the quality of the entire evening which seemed to pass in what my ten year-old son described as ‘a blink'.  

Director Hannah Smith's puppets are excellent and more than just a tool of the text or some mere frippery. Each is beautifully – and respectfully – handled and each has a distinct character of its own which really means more plaudits for this excellent cast and their commitment to detail.

Did I have a good night? Yes, I most certainly did.

I'd actually had an extraordinary week.

Black Faggot on Wednesday, Bus Stop on Thursday, the magnificent After Lilburn concert plus the Lantern Festival on Friday, PROUD (the party closing of The Auckland Pride Festival) on Saturday evening and Japan Day all day Sunday. The Road That Wasn't There on Sunday evening should have been exhausting but this remarkable romantic fantasy capped an already splendid week and I went home happy beyond words.

See this work if you can. It really is very special. It's unashamedly complex but it's refined as well; it's rich and magical, defiantly romantic, the performances are sublime and it's shared with such love that even the most world-weary cynic would have their heart melted in an instant. 

The Road That Wasn't There is your chance to experience a second childhood and you get to share it with three wonderful new friends. Tell me what's better than that? Elle, Ralph and Oliver – more please!  
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See also reviews by:
 Matt Baker (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);
 John Smythe
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Med (The Dominion Post);
 Erin Harrington
 Barbara Frame (Otago Daily Times);
 Kimberley Buchan
 John Smythe (2)
 Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
 Adrienne Matthews