Hamilton Gardens, Japanese Garden of Contemplation, Hamilton

18/02/2015 - 19/02/2015

Arty Bees Bookshop, 106 Manners Street, Wellington

19/02/2014 - 01/03/2014

Repertory House, 167 Esk Street, Invercargill

30/04/2016 - 01/05/2016

Senior Citizens Hall, 6 Lyon St, Featherston, Wairarapa

17/10/2015 - 18/10/2015

St Peters at Founders Park, Nelson

24/10/2014 - 26/10/2014

Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, University of Waikato, Hamilton

05/07/2015 - 05/07/2015

Philip Carter Family Auditorium, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, Christchurch

20/04/2016 - 24/04/2016

Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33), Edinburgh, Scotland

06/08/2016 - 28/08/2016

The Playhouse, 31 Albany Street, Dunedin North, Dunedin

13/03/2014 - 16/03/2014

Wanaka Masonic Hall, Wanaka

21/04/2015 - 23/04/2015

Baycourt X-Space, Tauranga

30/06/2015 - 30/06/2015

Arts Centre Common Room Building, 2 Worcester Blvd, Christchurch

27/04/2017 - 29/04/2017

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

26/09/2015 - 10/10/2015

Poverty Bay Club, 38 Childers Rd, Gisborne

09/10/2019 - 10/10/2019

Nelson Arts Festival 2014


Edinburgh Fringe 2016

Festival of Colour 2015

Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival 2019

Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival 2015

NZ Fringe Festival 2014

Southland Festival of the Arts 2016

Kokomai Creative Festival

Dunedin Fringe 2014

Production Details

“A bookbinder should never do anything that cannot be undone. But left alone, leather crumbles, and pages turn to dust. Stories begin to unravel…”

From award-winning company Trick of the Light (The Road That Wasn’t There) comes a new play for the Wellington Fringe. Inspired by the haunting works of Chris Van Allsburg and Joy Cowley, Trick of the Light’s The Bookbinder is a story of mystery, magic and mayhem. It weaves shadowplay, paper art, puppetry, and music into a mysterious tale for children and adults.

Chapman Tripp Theatre Award winners (New NZ Play, Most Promising New Director and Production of the Year – The Road That Wasn’t There), Trick of the Light return with an inventive new work staged in the atmospheric surroundings of Arty Bees Bookshop. Seating is limited – bookings essential.

For more information follow us @stagetrick, find us on Facebook as Trick of the Light Theatre or visit

The Bookbinder (Trick of the Light)
Arty Bees Bookshop, 106 Manners Street
19 Feb – 1 Mar, 6pm and 7.30pm (45mins)

March 13, 14, 15, 16, 6.00pm + Tues 18, 7.30pm
The Playhouse Theatre
50 min
Online Tickets: $10
Door Sales: $15
Dash Tickets (0800 327 484)

– See more at:

Nelson Arts Festival 2014
St Peters Church, Founders Park
Fri 24, Sat 25, Sun 26 Oct, 6pm
plus Sat 25 Oct, 8pm


“Tuned to perfection… Bookworms of all stripes and ages will adore it.” – ★★★★½ The Age, Melbourne

Where: Japanese Garden of Contemplation, Hamilton Gardens

When: Wed 18 Feb 2015
Time: 3:00pm & 6:00pm

When: Thurs 19 Feb 2015
Time: 6:00pm & 8:00pm

Where: Japanese Garden of Contemplation

Tickets: Standard: $25 | Under 18: $15 |
Family: $66 (2 Adults, 2 Children)

Festival of Colour 2015: WANAKA
Wanaka Masonic Lodge
Tuesday 21 April, 4pm & 6pm
Wednesday 22 April, 11am & 6pm
Thursday 23 April, 11am & 6pm

$25 adults/$10 students

Arts On Tour NZ 2015


Tuesday 30 June 6pm Tauranga

Baycourt X Space

Adult $22, Senior $20, Student $15, Child $9.50, Family $54

Book: Baycourt Box Office,, 0800 TICKETEK

Thursday 2 July 4.30pm and 7pm Opotiki

Senior Citizens Hall

$15 Matinee, $30 Evening incl Supper

Book: The Travel Shop

Saturday 4 July 5.30pm and 7pm Whitianga

The Monkey House

Adult $15; Student/child $10

Book: Paper Plus Whitianga and Mercury Bay Area School Office

Sunday 5 July 5pm Hamilton

Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, University of Waikato

Adults $22, Concessions $17, Family group (2 adults/2 children) $50

Students with ID $12, Child $8


0800 3835200 Academy Box Office

Monday 6 July 7.30pm Tokoroa

Tokoroa Little Theatre

$20 Book: Tokoroa Clothing Company

Tuesday 7 July 7pm New Plymouth

4th Wall Theatre

Adults $25, Students $10


Wednesday 8 July 6pm and 8pm Upper Hutt

Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre

Adult $20, Child $8

Book: 04 527 2168

Saturday 11 July 8pm Mapua

The Playhouse Theatre

$20, kids $10

Book: The Playhouse Theatre

Sunday 12 July 8pm Onekaka

The Mussel Inn

$15 Book:  The Mussel Inn

Tuesday 14 July 6pm and 8pm Hokitika

Reynolds Room

Hokitika Regent Theatre

Adults $20, Children/students $10

Book: Hokitika Regent Theatre

Thursday 16 July 7.30pm Arrowtown

Arrowtown Athenaeum Hall


Book: Lakes District Museum

Friday 17 July 7.30pm Bannockburn

Coronation Hall

Adults $25, SuperGold $20, Student/child $5

Book: Cromwell iSite

Saturday 18 July 8pm Gore

Little Theatre

Waged $30, unwaged $25

Book: SBS St James Theatre Gore

Sunday 19 July 5.30pm and 7pm Owaka

Memorial Community Centre

Adults $20, Children $10

Special family tickets available from Catlins Area School

Monday 20 July 7pm Roxburgh

Roxburgh Town Hall

$10 Door sales

Tuesday 21 July 6pm Oamaru

Inkbox Theatre


Adults $20, Children $10

Book: Oamaru Opera House

Wednesday 22 July 7.30pm Twizel

The Events Centre


Adult $20, School age children/Students $10

Book: Lotto Shop and Twizel Information Centre

Friday 24 July 7pm Ashburton

Ashburton Trust Event Centre


Book: Event Centre or
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
26 Sept – 10 Oct 2015
Tues-Sat, 11am & 7.30pm; Sun 4.30pm


What the reviewers have said:
“Absorbing and imaginative… a small gem of theatre.” THE DOMINION POST

“Spell-binding storytelling at its purest and best” THEATREVIEW
Review from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2015


  • Best Theatre and Best Fringe, NZ Fringe 2014
  • International Excellence Award, Sydney Fringe 2014

Senior Citizens Hall, 6 Lyon St, Featherston
Saturday, October 17, 2015: 11.00am & 3.00pm
Sunday, October 18, 2015: 2.00pm & 4.30pm
Cost: Adult $28 / Child $15 / Adult Friend $27 / Adult Child $14

What the reviewers have said: 

“Absorbing and imaginative… a small gem of theatre.” THE DOMINION POST

“Spell-binding storytelling at its purest and best” THEATREVIEW 
Review from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2015  


  • Best Theatre and Best Fringe, NZ Fringe 2014
  • International Excellence Award, Sydney Fringe 2014

Senior Citizens Hall, 6 Lyon St, Featherston
Saturday, October 17, 2015: 11.00am & 3.00pm
Sunday, October 18, 2015: 2.00pm & 4.30pm
Cost: Adult $28 / Child $15 / Adult Friend $27 / Adult Child $14

The Bookbinder 2016 tour

Philip Carter Family Auditorium
Christchurch Art Gallery
7pm April 20-24 + 1pm April 23 & 24
Tickets $10

Fortune Theatre Studio
6pm + 8pm April 27
Tickets $20


Sat 30 Apr – 7:30pm
Sun 1 May – 3:00pm
Repertory House, Invercargill

Tue 3 May – 7:30pm
Central Southland College Winton

Mon 2 May – 7:30pm
Tokanui Memorial Hall

Wed 4 May – 7:30pm
Northern Southland College, Lumsden

Thur 5 May – 7:30pm
Aparima College, Riverton

Tickets Adult $20 Child $10
Book Here

3pm 22-28 May
Sweet Venues Dukebox
Brighton Fringe…/bookbinder

Various Times 2-5 June
Traverse Theatre
Imaginate Festival

7pm 7-11 June
Salisbury International Arts Festival

Various times June 17-19
International Festival of Art and Ideas

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
Aug 6-14, 16-21, 23-28
Book here


7pm Thurs 27 – Sat 29 April 2017
The Common Room Building
The Arts Centre, 2 Worcester Blvd, Christchurch
Tickets $20
Book at

Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival 2019

THE LIBRARY ROOM, Poverty Bay Club
Wednesday 9th Oct – 7:30pm & 5:30pm
Thursday 10th Oct – 5:30pm & 7:30pm
General Admission $25, Concession $20, Children $15.

Small use of flame.
Because the show is light dependant, a strict lock-out policy will be in place once the show starts. So, please ensure you are on time.


Theatre , Site-specific/site-sympathetic , Puppetry ,


Intrinsic magic mesmerises

Review by Rosie Cairns 11th Oct 2019

When I was a child, in a remote coastal community, a storyteller rolled in with the tide. He performed for us in the steeped attic of a cliff-side home, by candlelight, to the sound of waves crashing upon the reef. Though I no longer remember his stories – 35 years have passed – I can still feel the magic of the characters and worlds he created, sometimes by the merest flick of a finger or turn of his neck, and the way I caught my breath as he captured my imagination.  

Memories of bright stories will linger long after the plot has faded into the shadows. So too does The Bookbinder captivate children and adults alike, leaving imprints of the tale in our minds.

Surely in all of Gisborne there is no more fitting place for a story within a story performance than The Library Room of the historical Poverty Bay Club. The young apprentice lies upon his desk in the corner of the library, in slumber as we take our seats, stools, the floor, intimately close to him and the clutter surrounding him. The focus of light makes us curious about the importance of each tool and item, and children, growing braver through waiting, crane up and around the desk. “Is he really asleep?”

Writer-performer Ralph McCubbin Howell and director Hannah Smith are able to make economical and surprising use of the walls, cabinet and exit door that seem to be placed solely for their purpose, though regulars of the PBC café will recognize that nothing much has been altered for this evening.

The apprentice, the ancient gaffer and the crone are narrated and personified by McCubbin Howell with affection and familiarity. His ease with the narrative and confidence with the accents and expressions of each character mean we are bustled along the road and led from the traditional tale into the fantastically innovative quite willingly. Our suspension of disbelief has us hoping and cheering for our animated paper hero. Indeed, the apprentice’s transformation from naïve flesh to vulnerable paper and back again are the making of him – though, as with any three dimensional hero, we see, question and appreciate the light, dark and grey areas of his character. What is it to be good, really? 

The juxtaposition of light and shadow is both literal and metaphorical. If a heart-stopping moment of fear grips, it will be quickly allayed with a literary joke or humorous aside. When the tension becomes uncomfortable, visceral even, clever use of a prop will delight and divert. The apprentice breaks a leg and McCubbin Howell snaps a pencil in half; there are gasps around the room. “He really broke it!” Well-mannered children cannot quite believe it, though they lap up the fantasy.

Those raised on The Brothers Grimm and French Folktales will recognise the craft of this play: the inevitable quest, the three challenges, life at stake, redemption. There is such satisfaction in anticipating the surprises, the events, the dialogue: even a new fairytale should feel discomfortingly familiar. The sound design lends weight and lightness with its pace and volume, at times unnoticed, at others dominating the room. Of course the light itself is so deftly utilised, to such dramatic yet simple effect, it is obvious McCubbin Howell has favourite moments that he relishes and he takes a pause to allow us to feel them too. Master of the lamp!

The props are works of art in themselves: Hannah Smith has created worlds within worlds. The delicacy and technicality of the paper characters and cut out pages, and the movement within, is matched by the intrinsic magic of the tools, lamps and gramophone. Water, simply swirled in a jug, becomes completely mesmerizing. We want to see them closer, to feel the weight of them.

After a cathartic and celebrated ending, we are allowed a close up, show-and-tell of the secrets of these precious objects, revealing how and of what they were made. Smith and McCubbin Howell are proud of, and generous with, their production, showing us unobvious sorcery and answering questions.

Watching the faces of the children – whether they are leant forward, pointing fingers, faces catching the light so caught in the enchantment of the tale, or shrunk back with fear into the shadows of their parents’ knees – it is clear The Bookbinder is that special sort of storyteller who has seeped into their worlds and, “Perhaps I will see you again…” 


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Makes you see the world with fresh eyes

Review by Naomi van den Broek 27th Apr 2017

Some years ago I remember hearing an interview on RNZ National with Ralph McCubbin Howell and Hannah Smith from Trick of the Light. I was driving somewhere at the time and it was one of those interviews where when you reach your destination you linger, wanting to hear as much as you can. I was utterly intrigued.

Life being as it is, this is my first experience of one of their shows in the flesh. Did not disappoint, would totally recommend to friends. Reasons as follows.

The Bookbinder is a one-hander, directed by Smith and performed by McCubbin Howell. McCubbin Howell, our bookbinder and, perhaps, gaffer to be, is the consummate host, welcoming us into his intimate and epic world of books, stories, magic, and fairytales. He builds and destroys this world and its inhabitants over the course of the performance, playing narrator, actor, puppet master, and technician. He has the true story-teller’s ability of making you feel like you are the only person in the room, and that all of this delight and wonderment is just for you. 

The Bookbinder has been touring since its inception in 2014, and Smith is clearly adept at adapting spaces to suit. The Arts Centre Common Room (home of theatre company Two Productions) is a charming, intimate space that feels just right. While sight lines are slightly tricky in places Smith has considered the space carefully, and the performance feels as intimate as its tiniest details, and as epic as the young bookbinder’s hero’s journey.

The score and sound design, by Tane Upjohn-Beatson, perfectly accompany the work; the set is spare and effective. The ‘real time’ lighting is a large feature of the work and, considering the low spec nature of the equipment, punches well above the weight of many full lighting rigs I have seen in other shows.

The work plays with the construction of a story, both in the narrative sense and in the physical act of making a book to house the story in. This duality is developed, expanded, undone and remade as the play unfolds. It is also compounded by the book within the book, in the story of the young apprentice bookbinder. There is a playfulness and whimsy in the script, with lots of good book-nerd jokes, and a pitch that feels just right for grown-ups, but would no doubt have great appeal for younger folk too.

The extra special thing about The Bookbinder is the papercraft of the intricate and delightful props. These have all been made by Smith and McCubbin Howell, and immediately bring to mind the work of artist Su Blackwell. The audience are invited to view them after the performance has finished, and there are many hidden details waiting to be found, which would make for excellent re-watch value. There is an attention to, and a revelling in, the detail of these that is quite breath taking.

Having seen Two Productions’ wonderful retelling of Moby Dick in the Great Hall just half a week ago, there was so much similarity to be found in the two shows, that it seemed perfect that Trick of the Light are using their space. In both works there is such an apparent joy in the art of story-telling; of creating a wonderful, immediate world; of humour and lightness; and of magic for young and not so young.

It’s theatre that makes you see the world with fresh eyes.


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A delightful gem of a show

Review by Sally Woodfield 08th Aug 2016

The Bookbinder has toured around New Zealand but somehow I had previously missed it. I’d heard whisperings of magic around this show, and finally managed to catch it at an intimate venue in Pleasance Courtyard.

As you enter the room the stage is softly lit and a man sleeps with his head on his arms, a sign in front of him: ‘Apprentice Sought’. Surrounded by the makings of his trade, the bookbinder appears deeply asleep.

He wakes and begins his story, and so begins an enchanting olde world style magical fairytale: a journey into a dark and just-scary-enough world told through simple props, shadow puppetry and a beautifully-crafted pop-up book created by Hannah Smith, who is also the director.

A young boy becomes an apprentice to the bookbinder, and is told the ‘rules’ of the trade: to “never cut corners” and “never do anything that cannot be undone”. And we’re warned: “They say you can get lost in a good book.”

An old woman comes into the shop with an ancient book to be repaired, and eager to show his skills, our apprentice begs to be given the task and rashly promises to have it done in a day.

Hurrying to complete the task, he does indeed cut corners and a need to redeem his mistakes takes him off on a dark journey to repair “the gap in the world”.

The use of metaphor and rhyme flows through the journey as our apprentice seeks “a thread of hair from your head, a knife from human skin, a needle from your tooth to bind the softest eyelid skin”.

Ralph McCubbin Howell is a master storyteller and has the audience in the palm of his hand, leaning forward to hear every word and indeed become lost in the story. 

Beautifully told and performed, with a special magic, this is a delightful gem of a show showcasing New Zealand writing and creative talent on stage in Edinburgh.  


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Delightful, amusing, spooky, thought-provoking

Review by Sarah McCarthy 01st May 2016

I’ve learned to trust the offerings at the Southland Festival of the Arts, so I was already excited to see the well-reviewed one man show The Bookbinder at Repertory House in Invercargill. As we wait for the show to begin, a cosily lit stage reveals a man sitting at a desk, asleep on his folded arms despite the audience’s chatter.

The man suddenly starts awake and the show begins. “You’re not the first apprentice to come here,” he says. And we’re his.

Playwright/performer Ralph McCubbin Howell, our captain on this journey, has the audience in the palm of his hand, a hand that, with the help of a simple desk lamp, can produce almost anything. The most everyday objects – paper, ink, a jug of water, the lamp – become the most beautiful, extraordinary and deliciously scary things.

It’s just magical, this hour. I thump my seatmate with glee. My hand covers my mouth in horror. I laugh, sometimes with relief. I have shivers running up and down my spine. It is transcendent theatre; we are transported far away from where we are. The audience leans forward towards the stage, breath bated. There is a wonderful silence in the crowd.

For the most part. One patron stomps noisily out of the theatre after about 10 minutes, rudely slamming the door behind her. A pity: she’s left just as things start to get seriously good. And it is a testament to the show itself that you can feel the audience bristling at the noisy intrusion into the fantasy world we are being drawn into. 

At its heart, The Bookbinder – directed by Hannah smith (also paper artist and puppet-maker) – is about stories, and their power to transport you from your place in time. Stephen King calls the act of reading and writing “time travel”, and it is most evident here – once committed, the audience is taken from this place to another, and then a third, hypnotised by glowing lamps and sneaky shadows.

Trick of the Light Theatre have achieved so much in such a short time – they have delighted, amused and spooked us all at once, they’ve made us think about the nature of fiction and storytelling, and they’ve made us never look at a simple desk lamp in the same way ever again. 

At one point during the performance I catch myself moving away from a shard of light, not willing to let it touch me. Silly.  

It’s just a story.


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A marvellously gripping tale

Review by Lindsay Clark 21st Apr 2016

The impact of this small company, Trick of the Light, is evident in the following it has attracted in its comparatively brief existence. A capacity crowd has gathered outside the Christchurch Art Gallery’s Philip Carter Family Auditorium. A short hour later, it is not hard to understand why. It is ‘theatre of the imagination’ on offer, at once playful and thought-provoking, presented with finesse and boundless inventiveness. 

My small companion’s verdict is “Really really awesome!” – the ultimate praise from a child of our times. 

For a start, there’s the lure of mellow lamplight and a scratchy gramophone playing ‘La Vie en Rose’, a sleeping fellow (is he even breathing?) at a book covered desk and the notice ‘Apprentice sought’, which suggests he is either overworked or coming to the end of something.

Like so much of the story which follows, sleep will be part of a pattern whose repetitions are only half sensed but somehow significant. The world we are charmed into, like all lasting folk tales, has rules and consequences but at the same time a pleasurable sense of limitless possibilities. 

Once awake, the Bookbinder at his work bench addresses us as the would-be apprentice and lets us in on his own learning experience. One must never actually read the book one is restoring, for it is a dangerous thing to be stuck in a book. One must never cut corners except in the literal sense and one must never do something which cannot be undone. The warnings are in place and we know in our bones that they will not be heeded. On to his story …

In an over-confident moment as a fledgling bookbinder, he undertakes work on a very large, ancient and crumbling book, declaring moreover that he can have it finished overnight. The old woman who has brought it in has eyes which will unsettle him again and again as the tale unfolds and the pages turn. He falls asleep and is obliged to carry out quick repairs with glue the next morning, rather than appropriately-crafted stitching. One page flutters out as he hands the book back and it is this act, together with his subsequent quest to make amends, that underpins the story, as he painfully makes his way to ultimate redemption.

Apart from Ralph McCubbin Howell’s rich story telling voice and telling eye movements, he has the ability to manage props and pages, puppets and shadow play in a seemingly effortless spiel of magic invention. Lamps, books, scissors, a water jug and ink, ordinary objects in themselves, become adjuncts to a marvellously gripping tale. His imagination and ours follow the same trail in a deeply satisfying adventure. 

It is made all the more appealing by the Bookbinder’s down to earth reminder that “it is only a story”. He exits with the offer of the job and we are thus left to consider our own apprenticeship and the corners we no doubt cut every day. That and an appreciation of the genuine artistic authority Trick of the Light have made their own.


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Review by Juanita McLellan 18th Oct 2015

There is a magic tied into a good book, and The Bookbinder captures it, releases it from the page, allowing the audience to share in the creative journey between the pages.

The tiny Senior Citizen’s Hall in Featherston echoes of a simpler time causing a wave of nostalgia.  Music plays softly in the background.  The small crowd snuggles in together on chairs and cushions, young and old alike, happily chatting to each other as a bearded bookbinder sleeps at his desk.  Small children edge closer to the desk, peering up to see the pile of books.

With a start, the music skips, then stops.  Our bookbinder wakes, and adjusts the gramophone to play again from the start.  With that, he begins his story.  Starting with his first arrival in the store, applying for the position of apprentice, he describes his mentor, his father, and the tools of the trade.  His eyes twinkle as he tells a joke, and we all giggle.  After all, one must be aware of the small things when in confined spaces. 

A faded woman enters his story and the bookbinder opens a large bound book on his desk.  The children in the front row all lean forward as he opens the tome, a pop-up shop springs from the pages.  The faded woman stands in the doorway of the shop, and the bookbinder becomes more than a storyteller, he is also both puppeteer and magician. 

As he accepts the task of repairing the faded woman’s book, he dabbles with danger, cutting corners to save time.  She goes to leave with her book, a single page falls to the floor.  In an effort to cover his error, our bookbinder burns the page.

All is not well, however, and our bookbinder becomes trapped in the world of the book, struggling with giant eagles, abandoned cities and a foreign mountain scape.  He must repair the book, by pouring more of himself into it.

The Bookbinder transfixes his audience with the magic of words, reminding us all why is it so good to be caught up in a good book, or even a bad one.  Told with all the voices of bedtime stories, puppets, tricks of the light and innovative staging, the play is not one that stands to be missed. 

Much like The Road That Wasn’t There, also by Trick of the Light Theatre, The Bookbinder weaves mythology into theatre, tying together the art of storytelling with the inventive performance style they have become known for.  


For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


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Fascinates young and old alike

Review by Ewen Coleman 02nd Oct 2015

Having started life in the backroom of a bookshop during the 2014 Fringe Festival, Ralph McCubbin Howell and Hannah Smith’s fascinating and spellbinding play, The Bookbinder, has been performed in numerous cities across the globe, including the Edinburgh Festival, before arriving back in Wellington for a return season. And so it should, such is its unique quality.

Books adorn the passageway into the Circa studio theatre, as the audience file into their seats past the tiny, dimly lit set, where the bookbinder sits, asleep at his desk. [More]


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Beautifully rendered

Review by Lena Fransham 27th Sep 2015

A mood-setting walk through a corridor full of books into the theatre. Books and shelves, old lamps, a gramophone from which issues some scratchy old cabaret tune, a desk and a sign saying ‘Apprentice sought’: an apt setting for the creation of a story to get lost in, which our narrator (Ralph McCubbin Howell) intimates ominously, is what is in store for us.

As Ralph draws us into his tale, his young protagonist leaves his home and becomes apprenticed to a bookbinder. The stern, beard-stroking older man is ‘kindly but exacting’, admonishing the boy about his youthful penchant for taking shortcuts. When a strange old woman brings him a book to be repaired, the boy, wanting to prove himself, assures her he will have it ready for her by the next day. When he rashly takes a shortcut with the mending, however, and tries to conceal the results, he finds himself cast into a strange world in which he must face the catastrophic consequences of his actions.

There’s solid tradition in the plot and delivery of this story, which began its life as a 2014 Fringe performance at Arty Bees bookshop in Wellington, and has since been to Dunedin, Nelson, Hamilton, Wanaka, 18 other NZ towns with Arts On Tour NZ plus Australia and the Edinburgh Fringe.

It follows the classic pattern of a European folk tale: the hero off to seek his fortune, the mysterious witchy old woman who presents him with a task, his naïve transgression and his consequent redemptive quest. I love the cosy familiarity of folktales. But I think the simple form is part of what makes them adaptable and enduring, and that mutability is where the real magic is.

Marrying tradition to the newer convention of meta-narrative – although the device of the character getting lost in the text-within-the-text is also pretty familiar, to adults at least – the story balances predictability with gorgeous, inventive delivery and a script that pays affectionate tribute to the folktale tradition while playing contemporary ideas and insights into those old narrative patterns. A few local elements – like Ralph’s portrayal of the boy’s dad with his ‘Southern man’ minimalist approach to communication – also refreshingly leaven the traditional mix.

Ralph’s animated narration, sound and lighting combine to create the sensory immersion conducive to getting us lost, as promised, in the book. The combination slowly builds an otherworldly magic with a soundscape that progresses through scratchy French cabaret, to Eastern European folk, to stormy ocean sounds (musical director Tane Upjohn Beatson) and with the simple but charming manipulation of lamps, props and shadow play, as a highly creative father might use when telling his kids a bedtime story. A pop-up book of landscapes in which tiny figures move adds a childlike but vivid dimension to the telling.

The atmosphere is a force all of its own, and would capture a crowd even if the script faltered. However, the script (Hannah Smith and Ralph McCubbin Howell) is a tight balance of economy and measured flamboyance, and Ralph delivers it with wit and relish in a diverse range of voices, holding the audience to the last word.

It’s a beautifully rendered example of the modern mutation of the folktale. There are few children present in tonight’s crowd, but I am sure if I were one of them I would be transported.


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Intimate, heart-warming, spooky, transfixing

Review by Brenda Rae Kidd 06th Jul 2015

The stage is set, the audience hushed and ready.  The old Bookbinder is asleep at his desk.  We are welcomed by the inimitable voice of songstress Edith Piaf coming out from the grand and shining horn of a fabulous old – I want to guess His Majesty’s Voice – phonograph.  With yet a word to be spoken, The Bookbinder has a distinctly European feel. 

A one man play, The Bookbinder is written and performed by Ralph McCubbin Howell.  However it is very much a collaborative effort between McCubbin Howell and set designer/ director Hannah Smith, both of whom comprise Wellington-based and award-winning Trick of Light Theatre.  The hauntingly ambient music score by Tane Upjohn Beatson complements and enhances atmospherics. 

Whimsical and oft-times funny, the old bookbinder has a romantic, poetic imagination in which he dreams up (or does he?) the magical story of his apprentice.  A young boy without a name comes under the care and watchful eye, in the magical store surrounded by books.  Shy and unworldly, the boy observes and learns the craft, from his oft gruff master.   

From the very bowel of winter an old mysterious woman appears bearing a book as mysterious as she.  This is where the fairy tale begins and, like all good folk tales, it tells of facing adversity and finding redemption.

With his heart-warming and often atmospherically spooky story, McCubbin holds the audience close as he moves effortlessly between characters while interspersing shadow play and puppetry.  The younger members of the audience sit quiet as mice during the 60 minute performance. They are transfixed. 

Clever use of props and light help propel this charming play along… so much so I am surprised when it all comes to its end.  That’s a good thing, to be left wanting more. 

The Bookbinder is an intimate play requiring an intimate setting.  The Gallagher Arts Centre, whilst an amazing venue for larger productions, would not have been my choice for this fine work.  I imagine Browsers Bookstore would have provided the perfect space and ambiance.  This is a work for a smaller audience than the 100+ attending on the night of this review. Some of the detail was lost on those of us up the back of the bleachers.

I wish Trick of Light theatre well at the Edinburgh Fringe; I am sure if it plays in a suitably intimate venue, The Bookbinder will be a standout.


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Fresh and simple show uplifts and inspires

Review by Gin Mabey 30th Jun 2015

The X Space at Tauranga’s Baycourt theatre hosts Trick Of The Light Theatre this week, with their one man show, The Bookbinder, written by Ralph McCubbin Howell and directed by Hannah Smith.

Performer Ralph McCubbin Howell is slumped sleepily over a desk set with old books, a jug of water, and a manoeuvrable lamp. The small set is marked out by a gramophone, a tall fabric lamp, and one or two small lamps on tables. The colours are all sepia-toned and natural, no traces of our modern world; Ralph’s costume follows suit. The ‘old-timey’ music works with the aesthetic to let us know we are in for something with a vintage attitude. 

As soon as Ralph starts to speak directly to the audience, with a sweet and engaging tone and twinkle in his eye, I settle in to the familiar lilt of a traditional story. Ralph introduces the scene and the characters as a book binding shop, a veteran book binder, and his delightfully Kiwi-accented apprentice. Ralph switches from character to character with wonderful skill using body, voice and accent.

He is not over-the-top with his acting, in fact he is less ‘acting’ and more presenting a story with necessary detail. I appreciate this, as it is nice to watch a performance that doesn’t force anything down the audience’s throat. Ralph is a very calming, intriguing and trustworthy performer. ‘Trustworthy’ seems an odd word to write when referring to an actor but somehow he seems unpretentious despite his very evident skill, which makes for a calming actor to watch.

The show really gets going when Ralph/story teller brings out the most fabulous pop-up book which he lovingly opens page by page, voicing what we see at each turn. (Trick of the Light Theatre could have a side business, making books such as these and selling them. I would buy 20; it is awesome.)

When an old Russian lady brings the bookbinding apprentice a very old book to mend, he gets ahead of himself. An error is made and he is plunged into a cold and unpredictable world, with a task to complete. Ralph uses the moveable lamp to create different shadows, move the audience’s focus, and bring light and shade onto various small yet symbolically-powerful props he uses. The gramophone and other props are bought into unpredictable yet exciting use. My favourite use of the set/props involves some water, a lamp and some ink…

I love the organic nature of The Bookbinder, it proves that theatre can be made from anything, if you have a great story, a voice and some light. In fact, when I get home I start looking at all the ‘stuff’ in my bedroom and think of all the things that could inspire stories, if we bring back child-like imagination and turn boring things into magical things. 

I am just as uplifted and inspired. Good stories like The Bookbinder are hard to come by, and I would love to see or read what other stories come out of Ralph McCubbin Howell’s clever mind.

Solo performers are theatrical marathon-runners in my opinion. I applaud anyone who can keep an audience’s attention on their lonesome, and Ralph is a great example of this.

If I were to see the show again I would sit closer to the front and centre, just to get full view and effect of the action, but a space can be used only within its means so this is not a critique. I am sure the intimacy of a bookstore would have been very special indeed.

Congratulations to Ralph and director Hannah Smith for creating a fresh and simple show that lets an audience imagine in their minds as much as marvel at what they see. 


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Sure to entertain

Review by Caroline Harker 25th Apr 2015

Once upon a time there was a festival in a little lakeside town called Wanaka. Every festival included some plays. In 2015 there is one called The Bookbinder. The people who see the play love it very much. They feel very lucky because the play is on for just three days. 

There is only one human being in the play. His name is Ralph McCubbin Howell and he is the bookbinder. Ralph isn’t lonely when he performs because he makes up lots of characters.

He turns the audience into people who want a job as his apprentice. He opens a pop-up book and finds a boy who has been a previous apprentice and an old lady with a very special book she wants mended.

There is an eagle, who is found in the shadows created by a lamp, and an ocean hiding in a jug of water. There is a faraway land and a hole at the edge of the world. They are in the audience’s imagination.

It is an enchanting story, but I am not going to tell you what happens because that might spoil it. But I do think you would love the story, whether you are eight years old or 80, unless you have a very bad temper and no imagination at all. 

Do you think it’s funny to describe someone as “a few volumes short of the complete works”? Is it interesting that an apprentice has to live at his workplace and sleep under a guillotine? Are you curious to see a cautionary tale come to life?

If your answers are all “yes”, I can assure you The Bookbinder will entertain you very well indeed.


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An enthralling, tightly told tale for all ages

Review by Ross MacLeod 19th Feb 2015

There’s undoubtedly an ancient art on display in The Bookbinder, though it is not, as one might expect, the trade of the title. Book restoration certainly gets a worthy mention but the true craft here is one of storytelling. I mean this in the ancient, oral traditional sense. Closed away in the close-curtained darkness of the Japanese Garden, Howell’s tale, spun by lamplight, could be just as easily placed in around a prairie fire or a lamp-lit castle.

With a commanding presence he draws us in, shifting between accents ancient and colloquial, and between characters, colourful and cryptic. The tale in question is both new and familiar, the archetypes falling into place swiftly. We know that the youth will transgress the rules, that he will be forced on an odyssey, that he will return wiser. Some of the twists are so archetypical that you see them well off, others come unexpectedly, just as a good story should be.

Howell makes full use of the storyteller’s bag of tricks, manipulating the light and shadows, puppets and props, evoking in places the nostalgia of childhood imagination. Several books standing upright seem innocuous but with the right invocation of words, they magically become an abandoned city.  Just when you think all the tricks have been played another appears, cunningly woven into the small, tightly packed set of the bookbinder’s work space.

If you ever remember a fondness of being read to aloud as a child, or enjoyed being on the other side as an adult, I heartily recommend The Bookbinder. It’s an enthralling, tightly told tale for all ages.


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Creative storytelling at its best

Review by Melanie Stewart 25th Oct 2014

We are ushered into the venue and choose from an array of seating including floor cushions, church pews and stools. The venue, which is filled to capacity, is dimly lit with household lamps. The set is a desk surrounded with piles of old books and a gramophone, and a man, the Bookbinder, is asleep with his head on the desk.

On awakening, he addresses the audience as applicants for the position of apprentice and begins to tell us the story of a recalcitrant apprentice who failed to follow the most important rule of book binding: don’t read the book. 

The story is told through a clever combination of narration, puppetry, shadows, and a pop-up storybook. McCubbin Howell plays all roles, flowing from one character to the other with ease, including manipulating countless props that represent a variety of people, objects and places. A jug of water and some ink becomes a sea monster, a matchbox becomes a customer, and books become buildings. The music is subtle and emulates old gramophone records. 

McCubbin Howell’s voice is compelling, ideal for the storytelling genre. He has the ability to draw you into the world he is creating and just when you might drift off he changes tack and something new or different renews your interest. It is a performance that gives you the opportunity to visualise your own variation of this imaginary world, while providing the foundation to build it on.

This is creative storytelling at its best My only complaint is my poor choice of seating. I want to be closer to see the detail in the pop-up story book and the desk lamp too often obscures my view.

Without doubt a show worth seeing.


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Review by Terry MacTavish 14th Mar 2014

It’s always a problem, loving something too much to let it go. I enjoyed Trick of the Light’s last Fringe show The Road That Wasn’t There so much that secretly I just wanted to see it repeated.  The Tricksters are pioneers however, and The Bookbinder breaks new ground.  Gently I am led to abandon preconceptions and enter this world for an experience that turns out to be likewise charming and illuminating. 

We are gathered not in the Playhouse theatre, but the greenroom above, where long ago I auditioned for The Southern Players, and where the photos of past luminaries of Dunedin’s theatre scene still adorn the walls.  Sustained by a delicate pinot gris, I choose to perch nervously beneath splendid Bertha “Lead with your bosom!” Rawlinson. 

Close before us sits a character straight from an old book illustration:  Gepetto apron and spectacles, soft brown beard and kindly yet penetrating eyes.  Absorbed in his work, initially he pays us no attention at all.  Beside him is a beautiful old phonograph, His Master’s Voice, and the seductive voice of a French songstress weaves around us.  Only when the gramophone winds down does the Bookbinder, muttering, “Bloody new-fangled technology,” acknowledge our presence. 

We are cast as the new apprentice – “not the first, and you won’t be the last” – impetuous, as the young are, looking for shortcuts instead of appreciating the beauty of a task done perfectly.  “A few volumes short of the full works,” as his master says. The exquisite script is rich with telling, often beautiful metaphors.  

With fluid ease, actor Ralph McCubbin Howell plays all the roles, Bookbinder and Apprentice, and the mysterious customer who needs a special book restored.  It is a commanding but unpretentious solo performance. 

It is the oldest of stories – the protagonist makes the wrong choice, takes a false step, and disaster ensues. The hero’s quest is then to set things right, heal what has been broken, find what has been lost: to restore balance, in effect. 

As the apprentice is inexorably drawn into the story told in the strange book, we share the experience through the simplest yet most ingenious of props.  Books become buildings, a water jug the sea, and the angle-poise lamp, the only lighting as far as I can tell, is used superbly.  

The pop-up book is an absolute treasure that you long to examine more closely.  No wonder the audience is kept small.  We lean in now, smiling at each other. Evocative original music by Tane Upjohn Beatson increases the sense of other-worldliness.  And now the pattering of rain on the roof adds to the atmosphere Trick of the Light have created. 

This is spell-binding storytelling at its purest and best, with moments of darkness and real fear, but lightened with beauty and the hope that lies in the heart of all the greatest fairytales.  Surely the belief that ultimately wrong will be righted is not just a trick of the light?


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Absorbing tale of boy apprentice in a bind

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 22nd Feb 2014

In a small room in Arty Bees Bookshop, which is not surprisingly overflowing with books and which seats only fifteen people, is a workbench at which a bearded bookbinder is working diligently at his craft. Behind him is a phonograph with a large metal horn playing some music. The bookbinder welcomes us into his world and then starts to tell a story.

His voice has a slight but varying accent and he appears to be from somewhere – and his story bears this out – in Mitteleuropa except he occasionally uses words such as bush for forest and tussock for grass.

The story he tells is about a boy he takes on as an apprentice to his dying art. And like most storybook apprentices the boy doesn’t heed his master’s advice when repairing a precious book for an old lady. He ignores his master’s advice that one should bind books, not read them.

Strange things happen to him. He meets a mysterious young woman, he travels to a strange city and sails a boat on a roaring ocean, he is carried off by angry eagles, and he has to repair a gap in the world. There is, of course, a moral to it all.

Ralph McCubbin Howell (who plays the storyteller) and Hannah Smith have come up with an absorbing and imaginative forty-five minute piece of storytelling theatre. They have been assisted by Nick Zwart (set) Jen Curry (sound) and Tane Upjohn Beatson (music), whose work combines effortlessly to assist in the storytelling.

But it is the numerous ingenious ways they use to tell their fantastical story that grips and holds the attention. A jug of water, a bottle of black ink, shadow play, books, sound effects, an angle-poise lamp, and best of all, pop-up paper art all play their part in the making of this small gem of theatre.


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Whimsical theatrical artefact

Review by John Smythe 20th Feb 2014

Upstairs at Arty Bees Bookshop, between the ‘Sociology’ and ‘Personal Development & Relationships’ stacks, there is a door. An old-fashioned ‘Apprentice Wanted’ sign is stuck to it and it leads to yet another room of books.

It is here we discover the ageless figure and craft of the titular Bookbinder (Ralph McCubbin Howell), bearded, aproned and bespectacled, bent over his meticulous task in the glow of an equally bendable desk lamp.

He cranks up an antique gramophone with a splendid golden horn to mark the start of the play and welcomes us – a necessarily small audience in this cosy room – as “the applicant”.

Gruff yet genial, he sets out the qualifications for the job (some surprises here), introduces us to the tools of the trade and asserts the bookbinder’s cardinal rules: “Don’t get lost in the book you’re repairing”, “Never cut corners” (except, of course, when you literally do) and, “Never do anything that cannot be undone”. Thus the foundations are set for a cautionary tale that allows for redemption.  

In telling the tale of how a previous apprentice overestimated himself and got into strife, the Bookbinder employs the illustrated pages of a wonderfully constructed pop-up book, designed by Ralph and the play’s director Hannah Smith, who also made it.

The desk lamp is also cleverly articulated, the gramophone horn has a lovely cameo, black ink in a glass jug of water creates a splendid effect and a standard lamp allows for some delightful shadow puppetry. Tane Upjohn Beatson’s original music and Jen Curry’s subtle sound effects complete the highly imaginative ‘picture’.

It all begins when an old woman brings in an even older book in for repair and the Apprentice begs his “Gaffer” to let him do the job. Pride, fear, guilt and a glimmering thread of potential romance are stitched into the increasingly convoluted story …

I have to confess there are times when I can’t see the story for words. There is some tidying up to be done so that some of the stitching is invisible, allowing the story to ‘leap from the page’ unencumbered. There is something about a broken leg that doesn’t quite gel for me, for example, and I get lost with the references to “the book of the world” and “the gap in the world [being] too big”.

Nevertheless I do see how one transgression can drop you into a swirling tide of all the others still unforgiven and unresolved. And I do see that redemption is achieved, even if I am unclear as to how. Maybe it’s just a matter of pacing; of light and shade.

This is a first outing for The Bookbinder, of course, and its ambitions are to be applauded. Having followed The Road That Wasn’t There (which won Most Promising New Director, New New Zealand Play and Production of the Year at last year’s Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards) with their Bats/Stab production Broken River, Trick of the Light “wanted to make something that was intimate and immediate, engaging and surprising, kind of like reading a book,” their programme note says. “We wanted to tell a story about the way stories are constructed, and we wanted to spin a good yarn.”

I have no doubt they will keep working to perfect this whimsical theatrical artefact. 


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