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FLOWS WITH A FREEDOM THAT REGENERATES THE FUN AFRESH

Print Version

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

at Circa Two, Wellington
From 8 Jul 2014 to 19 Jul 2014

Reviewed by John Smythe (2), 9 Jul 2014


Trick of the Light's The Road That Wasn't There is back, nestled neatly in the Circa Two space and as magical as ever if not more so in its telling. Everything I said in my original review applies, including that it “should attract an audience from 8 to 80 anywhere in the world.” This school holiday season at Circa Theatre plays 11am and 7pm (and 4.30pm Sunday) which makes it even more accessible to all. 

The ‘real life' story of a young man returning from mundane work in the city to St Bathens, where he grew up as the only child of a solo mum who has now become a problem in the small community, is ingeniously merged with her story about a girl who “followed a map off the edge of the world …” It plays with the idea of a ‘paper road' that was never built but was taken all the same.

Having premiered ‘out of town' at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe, The Road That Wasn't There found its way to the 2013 NZ Fringe (Wellington) then Hamilton, the Auckland Fringe, Dunstan Creek (Central Otago, its tūrangawaewae), Oamaru, Lyttleton, Wakari (Canterbury) and Dunedin en route to winning Outstanding New New Zealand Play for playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell, Best New Director for Hannah Smith and Production of the Year at the Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards.

The beautifully wrought script has been trimmed; all the design elements – Nick Zwart's cardboard box set, Marcus McShane's lighting, Eliza Thompson-Munn's costumes, Tane Upjohn-Beatson's composition and soundscape, and Hannah Smith's puppets – are pitched just right; the performances flow with a freedom that regenerates the fun afresh. A ‘less is more' quality also permeates the work of all three actors.

Elle Wootton transitions effortlessly from the aging map-napping Maggie, apparently lost in some fantasy, to the youthful Maggie – manifested in puppet form – who sets forth with a map to help out her poverty-stricken parents by earning money as a seamstress.

Oliver de Rohan is expressively minimalistic as city-boy Gabriel, back in St Bathens to deal with the ‘mother problem', and he animates the puppets for his mum's dour Scottish Dad, her fairground beau Walter and his dastardly reverse-self Retlaw, with accomplished aplomb (including coping calmly with an unscheduled ‘loss of face').

Also admirably contained yet fully present to each character, Ralph McCubbin Howell shows great vocal versatility as the bobby-helmeted Constable Good-One, nosey neighbour Rosie Parker and shopkeeper Mr Panesh with a cat nestled in his turban, and as puppet animator of Maggie's Mum, the enigmatic Blanket Man who lurks by the graveyard, and Roland B Willoughby Esq, the ebullient showman whose converse, Noland, is sad and defeated by a self-centred and uncaring son (Retlaw).

I have to confess the play so entrances me that I don't analyse who is manipulating and voicing the splendid shadow puppets but mostly it's Ralph, I think – sometimes joined by one of the others. Although it would be good for the screen to be less off to one side, the animations are beautifully handled with great dexterity.

Conceptually and in its language, the script is sublime, often verging on the poetic, and the rhythm and pacing of the production is finely tuned. The timing of sound effects and light cues is exemplary at the hands, I presume, of stage manager Kate Clarkin.

Underlying Maggie's fantastic experience along the non-existent road is Gabriel's ‘real' journey, as he gets to know not only about his mother's life but also his own – not to mention an embedded history of the Maniototo and a brisk rendition of Captain Cook's voyage to this land. It short, it's a pleasure.
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See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson (The Dominion Post);
 John Smythe
 Ewen Coleman (The Dominion Post);
 Matt Baker (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);
 Lexie Matheson
 Erin Harrington
 Barbara Frame (Otago Daily Times);
 Kimberley Buchan