BATS Theatre (Out-Of-Site) Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington

12/02/2013 - 17/02/2013

Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

24/02/2013 - 27/02/2013

Wunderbar, 19 London Street, Lyttelton

06/03/2013 - 07/03/2013

The Playhouse, 31 Albany Street, Dunedin North, Dunedin

14/03/2013 - 16/03/2013

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

08/07/2014 - 19/07/2014

Suter Theatre, Nelson

22/10/2014 - 23/10/2014

Carterton Events Centre, Wairarapa

22/10/2015 - 22/10/2015

Baycourt X-Space, Tauranga

24/10/2015 - 25/10/2015

Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre, Auckland

11/07/2017 - 15/07/2017

Expressions Arts & Entertainment Centre - Upper Hutt, Wellington

19/07/2017 - 19/07/2017

Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington

23/07/2017 - 23/07/2017

Hawea Flat Hall, Hawea

02/04/2019 - 04/04/2019

SIT Centrestage Theatre, Invercargill

27/04/2019 - 27/04/2019

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

22/07/2020 - 01/08/2020

Southern Lakes Festival of Colour

Nelson Arts Festival 2014

Kokomai Creative Festival

Dunedin Fringe 2013

NZ Fringe Festival 2013

Auckland Fringe 2013

Tauranga Arts Festival 2015

Southland Festival of the Arts 2019

Production Details

playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell

Trick of the Light Theatre with Zanetti Productions


Trick of the Light Theatre have crossed the globe to bring their twisted New Zealand fairytale back home to the Auckland Fringe. From award-winning Wellington playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell (The Engine Room, 2011), The Road That Wasn’t There will play at BATS Out of Site (Wellington) from February 12th to 17th and the Basement Theatre (Auckland) from February 24th to 27th – then on to the Dunedin Fringe. It is a curious tale from the shadowy corners of our history and the spaces between the lines on the map…

In New Zealand there are some 56,000 kilometres of paper roads – streets and towns that exist only on surveyors’ maps. Or do they? A young woman strays from the beaten track and finds herself in a paper town. It seems a land of possibility, but she soon discovers that actions taken in the fictional world can have frighteningly real consequences.

The play is rooted in New Zealand folklore; from lost moa roaming the foothills, to faeries who drink moonshine out the back of Pyne Gould Guinness. Playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell (Outstanding New Playwright, Chapman Tripp 2011) says ‘It’s a story from the twitchy edges of children’s literature – a dark world reminiscent of Coraline, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the works of the late (great) Margaret Mahy.”

After playing to full houses over their premiere season at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the company is looking forward to bringing the show back to home soil. Their Basement season will form the centerpiece of a nationwide tour that will take them from Auckland to Central Otago. Director Hannah Smith says “Our Edinburgh season was done on a shoestring, and now we’ve extended and improved the work at every level. It’ll be great to take it out on the road and share it with a Kiwi audience.”

Wellington Fringe Festival regulars (March of the Meeklings – Best of the Fringe 2008, A Most Outrageous Humbug – Pick of the Fringe 2009, Who’s Neat? You! – Best Theatre 2010), this show will take them to new territories, with a nationwide tour that will see them travel from Auckland to Central Otago.

The show combines puppetry and live music in a wickedly funny original fairytale.



BATS Out of Site
February 12th -17th, 6.30pm Tickets are available through BATS at or (04) 802 4175.

Riverlea Theatre
83 Riverlea Road
20-21 February, 7:00pm
Book tickets through

24th – 27th February, 8:30pm
Duration: 60 minutes
Venue: The Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Avenue, Auckland CBD
Tickets: $20/$16/$12
Bookings: iTicket – or 09 361 1000

Dunstan Creek 150
St Bathans Domain
3 March 2:00pm
Book tickets through

The ODT Inkbox (Oamaru Opera House)
94 Thames Street
5 March 7:30pm
Book tickets at

19 London Street
6-7 March 7:00pm
Book tickets at

Sam Mahon’s ‘Old Mill’
6 Singleton Road, Waikari
9 March 7:00pm
Book tickets at

The Playhouse Theatre
31 Albany Street
14-16 March 7:00pm (+ 3:00pm Saturday)
Book tickets at

2014 at Circa

From Trick of the Light Theatre (The Bookbinder) comes the return season of the 2013 Chapman Tripp Production of the Year. Drawn from the twitchy edges of children’s literature, it is an inventive and a dark world reminiscent of Coraline, Pan’s Labyrinth, and the works of Margaret Mahy. Combining puppetry, shadow play, and live music, The Road That Wasn’t There is a curious tale for intrepid children and adventurous adults…

Production of the Year – Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards 2013

Circa Theatre, Wellington
8-19 July 2014 11AM & 7PM
4:30PM show on 13 July
$25 Full | $20 Concession/Industry | $10 Children
Bookings (04) 801 7992 or

View video trailer here:

VENUE: The Suter Theatre
DATE: Wed 22 Oct, 6pm; Thurs 23 Oct, 6pm
DURATION: 60 mins
PRICE: $25 | UNDER 18: $15
FAMILY: $66 (2 Adults, 2 Children)

Carterton Events Centre
Thurs, Oct 22, 1pm & 6:30pm
Adult $25 / Child $15 / Adult Friend $22.50 / Child Friend $13.50 

X-Space, Baycourt
Saturday 24th October, 01:00pm
Sunday 25th October, 05:00pm
TICKETS:  Adults $20 | Children $15  



After a sweep of awards across the ditch, local company Trick of the Light Theatre are back in town for a one-off fundraiser performance of their award-winning dark fable The Road That Wasn’t There before they head off to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

First staged as a work-in-progress at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012, it returned home to sweep New Zealand’s Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards in 2013, winning Outstanding New NZ Play, Most Promising New Director and Production of the Year. Last year the company took it overseas to two of the world’s largest Fringe festivals where it won Best Children’s Event at both Fringe World, Perth, and Adelaide Fringe.

The company are partnering with Zanetti Productions to rework the show in preparation for the world’s largest festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where they will perform as part of Creative New Zealand’s NZatEdinburgh programme.

Director Hannah Smith says “We first made the show on an absolute shoe-string budget, and after touring it for a couple of years it’s been great to come back with a fresh set of eyes, kill some darlings, and get it road-ready for Edinburgh.” This will be the company’s fourth visit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where their show The Bookbinder has enjoyed sell-out seasons for the last two years.

Last seen in Wellington in 2013, the performance of The Road That Wasn’t There at Whitireia will see a reworked script, fresh design, puppets made by Smith with puppet-maker Jon Coddington, and a cast of Elle Wootton, Ralph McCubbin Howell, and Paul Waggott who is returning from the UK for the NZ tour. McCubbin Howell says “We knew it was a long-shot to get Paul back, and we’re delighted to have him back in the fold. This Wellington show is going to be special.”

The Road That Wasn’t There will play at:

The Herald in Auckland with Auckland Live
July 11-15

Expressions, Upper Hutt
July 19

Whitireia Performance Centre, Wellington
Sun 23 July 2017, 7pm
Book at

Southern Lakes Festival of Colour 2019

Hawea Flat Hall
Tuesday 2 – Thursday 4 April 2019
More Info & BOOK

Southland Arts Festival 2019

SIT Centrestage Theatre, 33 Don Street, Invercargill.
Sat 27 April 2019
Adults – $30.00
Child – $15.00  Child or Student 18 years and under
Under 30’s – $20.00  Persons under 30 years with I/D
Concession – $25.00  Senior and Unwaged

Fiordland Event Centre, 20-22 Luxmore Drive, Te Anau.
Sun 28 April 2019
Adults – $30.00
Child – $15.00 Child or Student 18 years and under
Under 30’s – $20.00 Persons under 30 years with I/D
Concession – $25.00 Senior and Unwaged

Wheel Chair seating please ring venue.
03 21 87188
Tickets will be sold at the door on the day depending on availability.
Doors open at 5.30pm
Show starts at 6.30pm


Elle Wootton:  Maggie 
Oliver de Rohan:  Gabriel, Walter/Retlaw, Father 
Ralph McCubbin Howell:  Rosie Parker, Mr Panesh, Constable Good-One, Roland/Noland, Blanket Man, Mother
2017 & 2019 
Paul Waggott:  Gabriel, Walter/Retlaw, Father  

Composition and Sound Design:  Tane Upjohn-Beatson
(Incorporating themes from the Edinburgh season composed by Ralph McCubbin Howell)
Additional musicians:  Anna Edgington – Soprano; Charley Davenport – Cello; Oliver de Rohan – Clarinet
Dramaturgy:  Hannah August
Puppets:  Hannah Smith
Set:  Nick Zwart
Costumes:  Nicola Holter
Lighting:  Marcus McShane
Marketing Design:  Ed Watson
Programme Design:  Alex Rabina

Produced by:  Trick of the Light Theatre 

The Road That Wasn’t There was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August 2012. 

2019 tour 
Elle Wootton, Paul Waggott, and Ralph McCubbin Howell
Written by    Ralph McCubbin Howell
Directed by    Hannah Smith
Travelling Wonder-Tech    Matt Eller
Production Manager    Ruby Reihana-Wilson
Composition & Sound Design by   Tane Upjohn-Beatson
Lyrics by   Ralph McCubbin Howell
Lighting Design by   Rachel Marlowe
Production Design by   Trick of the Light
Puppets by   Hannah Smith
Puppet Consultant   Jon Coddington
Puppet Costumes by   Nicola Holter and Fiona Bayes
Marketing and Graphic Design by    Ed Watson
Produced by    Lydia Zanetti  /  Zanetti Productions


Circa One
Weds 22 July – Sat 1 Aug 2020
6:30pm Tues – Sat; 4pm on Sun 26th
and extra 1pm Sat matinees on Sat 25 July and Sat 1 Aug.
$15 – $25 ($25 Adult / $23 Group 6+ / $20 Concession / $18 Friend / $15 Children)
Suitable for adults and older children (8+) 

Theatre , Puppetry , Family ,


Magical storytelling with one problematic element

Review by Ines Maria Almeida 23rd Jul 2020

After rave reviews and awards around the world, I’m excited to take my kids to see Trick of the Light’s celebrated dark fairytale The Road That Wasn’t There. A beautiful combination of shadowplay, puppetry, and live music, the show is a mash-up of Neil Gaiman and Margaret Mahy – who could possibly resist? Not me. In just an hour, we’re taken through a dreamlike story broken up into a series of short chapters, with delightful headings projected onto the maps that make the set (that serve as breadcrumbs so we don’t lose our way as the narrative envelopes us in craft and whimsy). Call it a fairytale or an epic, it feels Burtonesque in all the best ways, but the magic is solidly rooted in good ol’ New Zealand. The hell that is Dunedin, St Bathan’s, to be specific (that’s not my personal opinion – it’s from the show, I swear).

The premise is simple, as all good stories are. This is a hero’s journey, framed as a story within a story that unfolds through Maggie (Elle Wootton), a mother. Now, go back to what you know about fairytales and you’ll see that this is quite the twist. Mothers in stories like this are often evil, or dead, so it’s refreshing and necessary to see a Mother (yes capital ‘M’) as a hero rather than a villain. Maggie’s son Gabriel (Paul Waggott) is considering moving her into a nursing home because of all the calls he gets from her nosey neighbours (Ralph McCubbin Howell). When he arrives at her house, his childhood home, he starts to pack up her things but wants to unpack the story of his absent father.

And I guess this is where the magic begins. Maggie tells her story through puppets, and all three performers are so good you hardly notice them manipulating their characters on stage. Maggie’s story revolves around when she, as a young girl, strays off a beaten track and finds herself lost (or found? – you decide) in a paper world. Did you know that NZ has over 50,000 paper roads, roads that do not exist on maps? True story.

As I sit and watch, I also get a lesson on Captain Cook’s explorations (or colonisations) of the Pacific, but it happens so quickly that I can’t quite grasp it. As we find in all fairytales, there’s excitement and drama, a love interest and scary creatures on stage here. Just as I’m letting myself get lost in the story, I’m jerked back to reality with what hits me as an astounding racially insensitive cinematic trope: The Magical Negro (well, in this case indigenous New Zealander).

The The Magical Negro is an American cinematic trope – a supporting character who comes to the aid of a white protagonist (that’s you, Maggie). These characters often have special insight or mystical powers, selflessly helping white people. The token brown puppet in this play is a drunk Maori, and while it pains me to watch this, I learn later that this character exists in homage to Bernard ‘Ben’ Hana, also known as ‘Blanket Man’, a homeless man who lived on the streets of Wellington. A local fixture and a celebrity, Blanket Man made Cuba Street and Courtenay Place his home. The problem with this representation of course, is that if you aren’t familiar with Blanket Man, then you’re just watching a drunk brown puppet on stage.

I make a point to explain what’s problematic about this show to my kids, because these are puppets! This is a kids’ show! And I really don’t think they know or understand the legend of Blanket Man. For people in Edinburgh who saw this during the Fringe Festival in 2012, it might have looked racist. I know I felt uncomfortable – and perhaps this discomfort could have been avoided with some background history, either in the programme, or projected on stage when the character is first introduced.

Not one to accuse anyone of intentional racism, I ask my bestie, who is white, and accompanying me, if she finds it weird, this drunk, brown puppet. She does and I feel validated. So, it’s not just me and my brown skin that’s taking offence. The play does refer to the legend of Kaiamio and the taniwha Kopuwai, which I guess means that the writer (Ralph McCubbin Howell) knows a thing or two about the rich indigenous stories of his homeland. His play has cleaned up at the Wellington Theatre Awards and has toured around the world: big wins worth celebrating, but still I worry about the stereotype the show is projecting without fully honouring Blanket Man’s legacy (and that would mean explaining fully who this man was and what he means to the story).

I know this might all sound too PC, but given the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have to challenge the stereotypes and discrimination I see. The Road That Wasn’t There is a show worth seeing, but the characters it uses to tell a story are worth challenging. 


Ralph McCubbin Howell + Hannah Smith July 24th, 2020

Kia ora Ines. 

Thanks so much for this review and for digging into some good meaty criticism. A lot of artists don’t read reviews of their work (and that’s cool) - we absolutely do. This stings, and we’re gutted, but really appreciate this well-considered feedback - please do keep challenging stereotypes and discrimination as you see it. It’s certainly not our intent for the character to read this way, and we’re sorry you had to have a talk with your kids about it (but think it’s awesome that you did). The incorporation of Te Ao Māori in the play is something we’ve worked long and hard on, and have gratefully taken in criticism and received advice from a number of knowledgeable people, but clearly we’ve got more work to do. We’ve made some changes since opening night, and will be rolling up our sleeves and making some larger ones when we have our day off performing on Monday.

We did just want to make two clarifications: while the character is eccentric, he isn’t intended to read as a drunk - we’ve now cut Maggie’s line about the townspeople’s accusation of this which might have been confusing things. You also mention that the character “exists in homage to Bernard ‘Ben’ Hana” - this was true in a much earlier version of the play, and as the other poster mentions above was intended as a nod to Hana’s fame as challenger of societal norms, and part of a thread about there being more to people than meets the eye, however we were wary it reading as an unintentional trope and weren’t able make contact with his family to get their blessing, so changed the character five years ago.

We do want to keep telling stories that extend beyond the realm of our personal experience, and to reflect the diversity of the world we're in, but it’s 2020 and we want to do this in a way that’s mindful, so if that means more work for us, then we’re up for it. We try to get things right, sometimes we get things wrong, and some things don’t always come off as intended - we’ll keep working at it.

Thanks again for the feedback.

Ralph and Hannah

Duvet Person July 23rd, 2020

I am perturbed by this critic’s rush to judge the ‘Blanket Man’ puppet in terms of an American cinematic trope. Calling him a ‘token brown puppet’ is more than a little offensive, I feel. The whole play has a mythical dimension so it’s not as if he’s tacked-on. Yes, I get that back in 2013, in Wellington, the original audiences were aware of Ben Hanna and his fame as a challenger of societal norms and prosaic ‘reality’ so we saw the referencing of him in the role of ‘spirit guide’ as inspired, as a celebration and affirmation of someone who chose not to conform to the rules of the city. And sure, international audiences and 2020 audiences will not make that direct connection, so he has to stand in his own right as a dramatic device – as a homeless outcast whose ‘reality’ is just as valid, if not more so, as those who count themselves civilised and sophisticated. I think he does. 

This knee-jerk accusation of racism brings up the whole question of how Pākehā writers should approach including Māori characters in their stories (or vice versa). It would be retrograde and regressive if they excluded that dimension of Aotearoa for fear of this sort of criticism. Every fiction writer necessarily explores beyond their realm of personal experience, be it gender-related, generational, occupational, cultural, geographical ... let alone in the mythical and ‘magic realism’ realms. I should also add that a significant proportion of stories by Māori writers include mythical and non-naturalistic elements. Of course writers should research thoroughly to ground their imaginings in credibility (if that’s the word) and avoid offence born of ignorance or insensitivity but heaven forbid that we should repress creativity by seeing everything ‘other’ as out of bounds. How boring would that be?

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Combines all the very best parts of theatre and storytelling

Review by Sarah McCarthy 28th Apr 2019

Birdsong fills SIT Centrestage Theatre as we wait for the show to start. My son, 7 (8 for the purposes of tonight’s show) is getting nervous. I had warned him things may get a bit unsettling.
“What’s unsettling?” he asks.
“You’ll see”.

Maps hang on a line. Plain boxes are stacked about the stage. The NZSL interpreter takes her place. We are ready. My son snuggles closer to me.

The Road that Wasn’t There is a song disguised as story, a love letter to mothers and sons, shared history, community and what might have been. Pitched perfectly at slightly older children yet absolutely for adults, we are treated to a funny, warm, tender, artful and fabulously unsettling evening. 

The storytelling techniques are exemplary. We move between the actors – Elle Wootton, Paul Waggott and Ralph McCubbin Howell – shadows on a map and beautiful, tenderly manipulated puppets. The story meanders – as all real stories do – and so too does the telling, back and forth, up and down, and especially sideways, along the road past the cabbage trees. 

Music, haunting birdsong and beautifully realised lighting sit together and create a truly brilliant experience.

There are plenty of children in the audience and I don’t think I hear a peep – well, there is a squeak towards the end but that may be me. Punches aren’t pulled, here. Trick of the Light aren’t here to play. I am reminded of Roald Dahl and his knowledge that children love to be taken to the edge of something truly scary, as long as someone bigger is there to hold a cold little hand.

At the end, tears are in my eyes. As much for the grown-ups as it may seem to be for children, The Road That Wasn’t There combines all the very best parts of theatre and storytelling, and proves yet again that Trick of the Light know exactly where they’re going. 


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A polished and charming tale for young and old

Review by Nigel Zega 03rd Apr 2019

New Zealand is littered with paper roads — but do these hypothetical highways head to heaven or hell?

Trick of the Light theatre traces the perilous path of a staunch lassie who discovers The Road That Wasn’t There and finds herself somewhere akin to through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole.

It’s a spooky mix of fable and fun, fear and resolve, and learning by making mistakes, especially when you’ve taken a wrong turn in life.

As the girl’s magical adventures are revealed, the alternative realities they conjure up are as relevant to adults as they are to kids.

Skilled multi-taskers Elle Wootton, Paul Waggott and writer Ralph McCubbin Howell create a real sense of wonder with a simple set, puppets and shadow characters in a show rich in puns, jokes and local references, although the hall swallowed a few of the quieter lines.

It’s a polished and charming tale for young and old, and also has possibly the best ever 15 second history of Captain Cook’s endeavours in the Pacific — quite appropriate for a show about heading off to unknown destinations.


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Delightful, spooky, mesmerising, world-class

Review by Pip Harker 03rd Apr 2019

Expectations are high as we settle onto our school forms at Hawea Flat Hall for the latest production from critically acclaimed theatre company Trick of the Light. The set onstage is an intriguing collection of cardboard boxes, lights and maps – a large one hanging from a line.  As the show begins we see that the large map will double as a screen for shadow play.

This sweet tale begins with dutiful son, Gabriel, coming from London to St Bathans, Central Otago to take care of his Mum, Maggie. Many phone messages have alerted him to the fact that his mother has been doing odd things – as reported by the nosey townsfolk.  Gardening in her knickers, taking her doorknobs off and mousetraps on the garden path are some of the strange goings-on.  As the reasons for this behaviour unfold we come to her telling of the story about her as a much younger woman and The Road That Wasn’t There.  

The play takes a darker turn as she heads off to a new job and encounters a mysterious swagman who tells her of the short cut to where she wants to go.  She finds her way to the ‘paper road’ (that mysteriously only appears when you have the map) and to another world where an earlier township of St Bathans live a happy simple life and our heroine falls for a very pale boy called Walter.  Come and do costumes for our show rather than make curtains for them, they say, and she can’t resist.  

When our heroine draws herself into a map she has made, having lost the original – her only way to ‘the other world’ – things become decidedly scary.  She finds herself in a much darker alternate world and it is very creepy indeed. It becomes very clear why Mum has been acting weird.

This play is definitely not for young kids.  The Festival of Colour brochure says for ‘older children and adults’.  I would strongly recommend 13+ (as recommended by my 13 year old) but of course it depends on the child.

The three energetic and talented actors are doing everything to tell this tale with the aid of shadow puppets, silhouettes, cardboard boxes and lights, the occasional pretty song with gorgeous harmonies and, most stunning of all , the hand-held puppets.  With a handle in the head and two arms sticks but no mouth movement the puppets come to life as the story within a story is told by mum to her son.  These are truly mesmerising and the whole play is a reminder that simple effects are as powerful as any high-tech trickery. Some might say that the actors standing in full view as they say the lines for the hand-held puppets is distracting but if you focus on the puppet, as they do, this is not a problem.

This delightful, spooky and mesmerising production is world-class: the brilliant old school effects; a snappy soundtrack; wonderful acting by Elle Wootton, Paul Waggott and Ralph McCubbin Howell and let’s not forget the lovely singing; a sophisticated script by Ralph McCubbin Howell and the confident and clever directing by Hannah Smith. All bring this beautifully expressed original tale to life in a profound way.  See it wherever you can.  And think hard before taking kids that are sensitive to scary.


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There’s no denying the artistry, originality and creativity

Review by Maraea Rakuraku 28th Jul 2017

There is something bewitching about The Road That Wasn’t There by Trick of the Light Company. The coming-of-age mythic journey – a mystery within a mystery with puppets, a searing soundtrack, shadow play, a taniwha besotted by a girl, a thwarted love-story – is all given a Coraline, Gaimanesque treatment.

Much has been written about the clever shadow play and rod puppets by other reviewers which I won’t repeat here, though I find their operation and articulation particularly mesmerising.

It’s refreshing to have a work based so solidly outside of Wellington and Auckland, in Dunedin, which is supported by local maps strung across the stage. The maps aren’t just pretty props; they are the backdrop of the shadow play and the chapters of the unfolding story.

Sure most of the humour goes over the heads of the children in attendance but there’s plenty for them to hang onto.

Each actor (Elle Wootton, Ralph McCubbin Howell and Paul Waggott) has a strong charismatic presence and clear articulation which is a strength of the work. The older (human) and then younger (puppet) of the main protagonist, Maggie, is particularly enchanting. When they burst into song, they do so in fine voice and it contributes equally to the storyline.

But I then struggle when other supporting characters are introduced. A friend and I slow-motion look at each other when we hear what sounds like Bollywood music (it reminds her of the movie soundtrack of Wes Andersen’s The Darjeeling Express), expecting an Indian character … And that’s what we get. Kind of.

Which leads to an unease I feel every time certain characters appear. There is a kind-of commitment to the minority culture characters. When the brown character appears, it doesn’t even occur to me he is Māori, until I detect a hori-type accent. Kind of. The Indian character, again. Kind of.  It’s only after the show I learn that that character was based on the late Wellington identity, Ben Hana, aka Blanketman.

Dr Nicola Hyland at the Victoria University Theatre School writes about this extensively and upon writing this review, I learned she responded to an earlier version of The Road That Wasn’t There with similar concerns which led to discussions with its creators. Even so, while that character is clothed now, having seen this for the first time and only learning of that post performance, there is a remnant, a lingering of that particular character. And because everything in The Road That Wasn’t There is intentional, I can only guess the character and his characterisation is intentional, despite the character’s English name. Compared to the articulation of the other characters, it’s like a hesitation. And often a hesitation can be worse than a full on stereotypical presentation. Hence the unease.

Something is said in te reo and for the life of me I can’t understand it. Even when I try to match it with its preceding action. When the piwaiwaka appears early on, it immediately locks me into Maui and his disastrous encounter with piwaiwaka and I expect a similar story to unfold. It doesn’t. Which is ok. The story of the taniwha besotted with the young girl, I’m not familiar with at all. But then, I don’t need to be; there is enough fairytale and folkstory in The Road that Wasn’t There for me to believe.

What I can’t shake, though, is the response Yassmin Abdel-Magied had to the Lionel Shriver opening address at the September 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival. It’s something as art practitioners we must be mindful of. Not fearful of. Mindful.

There’s no denying the artistry, originality and creativity poured into this work. Respect. And with it about to hit Edinburgh, the best of luck. I can only imagine that it will have an upside-down-inside-out-effect as place names relocated from that part of the world are spoken back to them, and a place located halfway around the world is brought closer. 


Ralph McCubbin Howell + Hannah Smith July 31st, 2017

Kia ora Maraea. Thanks so much for this. It's not often to get a good meaty review that offers genuine critique. The show is an ever-evolving beastie, and we're always striving to work mindfully and to make it a better piece, so appreciate your feedback.

We failed to get programmes printed in time for the show on Sunday and just wanted to offer a couple of clarifications that these might have addressed. The track is indeed from The Darjeeling Limited and, before that, a 1970 film called Bombay Talkie where it featured on this truly excellent set. The story of Kaiamio and the Kopuwai is a retelling of a legend from Queenstown’s Te Rapuwai tribe. The character you mention was based on Ben Hana's Blanket Man persona in early versions of the play, though after consultation we've since replaced this with a different character, partly inspired by Barney Whiterats - a real life transient who walked Central Otago performing shows with his trained white rats.

We're grateful to Nicola for her advice, as we are to the various practitioners who've offered feedback on the weaving in of elements Te Ao Maori. We try to get things right, sometimes we get things wrong; some things don't come off the way we intend, and, evidently, sometimes I stuff up my pronunciation. We'll keep working at it. (The whakataukī is "Ko ia kāhore nei i rapu, tē kitea." He who does not seek will not find.)

The references to Maui and the piwakawaka throughout the play are deliberate. For all that it's a play about love and escape, it's a play about monsters and death.

If ever you fancy catching up when we are in Wellington we'd love to have a yarn. Either way thanks for the feedback.

Ralph + Hannah

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Uniquely crafted and memorable

Review by Kathleen Mantel 12th Jul 2017

A woman at the end of her life searches for a map that will take her back to the magic world of her youth.

The Road that Wasn’t There is a product of Wellington’s award-winning theatre company Trick of the Light, founded by Hannah Smith and Ralph McCubbin Howell.  The play garnered rave reviewed when it premiered at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and during its tour of New Zealand in 2013.  It has won numerous awards including Chapman Tripp Theatre Awards for Outstanding New New Zealand Play, Most Promising Director, and Production of the Year.  This performance is directed by Smith with McCubbin Howell playing a range of different characters and providing the mesmerizing live sound track.

Gabriel (Paul Waggott) has a day job as a stamper of documents in England.  After receiving word from his hometown in Otago that his mother Maggie (Elle Wootton), who has always been somewhat eccentric, has taken it to a new level, Gabriel begrudgingly returns home to sort things out.  Maggie is living in somewhat of a shamble, with a clutter of dusty maps scattered all around the house.  Gabriel wants her to settle into a retirement village but she won’t have a bar of it.  Instead she sits her son down and begins her story.

On the outside the show looks like it’s aimed at kids.  And it is.  But unlike other kid’s theatre that offers a few gags along the way for the parents who are always in tow, The Road that Wasn’t There offers a separate, quite beautiful and touching storyline.  Children take things quite literally.  The story is the story.   They know about magic and accept it as part of the world around them.  A child sees a young girl go on a fascinating adventure into a magical world that only she knows about.  They relate to that.  An adult sees a wider picture.  Life as a journey one takes, regrets, lost magic, adulthood, old age, failing health, nostalgia. 

“At first Gabriel didn’t believe the story his mum told him but then he realises that the story is true.” – Alea (8)

The production is a mix of realism, shadow play, and marionettes.  Maggie’s story revolves around a journey, a map, a handsome musician, love and loss.  There is the dark magical unease to the play, something that is very appealing to children.  Children expect a fairy tale ending but they delight in being taken through dark places along the way.

“I found it a bit scary because of the mean version of Walter.  Walter is nice in the real map, but in the map that Maggie drew he is really mean and cruel.  There are a few funny bits that I quite like – when Maggie is gardening in her underwear and then the neighbour said that you should really get a new skirt.” – Alea (8)

The set is simple, yet elegant and functional.  A washing line of maps acts as a backdrop and screen.  Granny lamps and brown cardboard boxes litter the stage.  The boxes are used for storage, but they also signify movement, change, dust, the past, the beginning and the end.

The play is firmly set in the New Zealand of the past.  Somewhere just off the map and not quite tangible.  Somewhere just off the map and not quite mapped.  It’s a story of paths that are there one day and not the next. Of a life that may or may not have happened.  And how life, like paper, doesn’t last forever.

It is a treat to come across a production that is so inventive and fresh both in its story telling and production.  Trick of the Light have followed no other in creating this uniquely crafted memorable piece of theatre that appeals to both the young and old.

The Road that Wasn’t There is a very good play.”Alea (8) 


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Transported into pure childlike wonderment

Review by Karin Melchior 25th Oct 2015

Billed as a “twisted New Zealand fairy-tale”, Trick of the Light’s The Road That Wasn’t There is both dark and humorous in the best folk tale tradition. Paper roads are roads that have never been built and exist only as dotted lines on surveyors’ maps, but this story is about a young girl who found herself following one.

Part Grimm, part Māori myth and part pure whimsy, it is an original and magical tale that takes us on an adventure into a shadowy world at the end of a paper road that only exists in the imagination, or does it?

Gabriel, sensitively played by Paul Waggot, is called home from the city to do something about his elderly mother, Maggie, who is being labelled a “cartographic criminal” having been stealing maps from public institutions and generally acting strangely. At first, it appears she is sadly declining into old age dementia, but as Maggie’s tale unfolds, we come to understand the reasons for her eccentric behaviour.

It is essentially a story of lost love and an old woman’s search for the paper road, which will lead her back to the happiness of her youth. Elle Wootton gives a thoughtful performance as Maggie, moving between old woman and young girl in a refreshingly subtle and understated way.

The set, consisting of a multitude of assorted cardboard boxes with maps pegged on a line behind, is effectively multi-functional, being effortlessly transformed into furniture, announcements of each new chapter and a shadow box.

The shadow puppets, along with handheld ones, beautifully designed by director Hannah Smith, delightfully enhance the story and are skilfully manipulated and brought alive by the cast. Ralph McCubbin Howell, who also wrote the script, switches seamlessly between an assortment of wonderful characters, both real and puppet.

The evocative soundtrack by Tane Upjohn-Beatson beautifully enhances the mood of the piece, in turns having us light-heartedly toe-tapping along and on the edge of our seats. The ensemble singing is a highlight, with the cast harmonizing beautifully together.

There is so much packed into the show’s sixty minutes, my 11 year old and I leave feeling as though we really have just been swept, like Alice down the rabbit hole, into another world where our sense of what is real and what is magic has been temporarily suspended.

In its darker moments, it is a little too scary for the pre-schoolers beside us but older children and adults will delight in the opportunity this whimsical tale gives us to once again be transported into that state of pure childlike wonderment.  


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A world of intrigue, laughter, mystery and dread

Review by Vivienne Quinn 24th Oct 2015

Two years seems like such a long time between Arts Festivals, especially when I was not organised enough to see the Trick of the light Theatre show offering, The Bookbinder, the last time around. It won awards all over the place. So I was very excited when I opened the lovely green booklet for this festival to see The Road that Wasn’t There and got sorted immediately to take as many kids along as I could.

It is introduced by a festival representative as being “spell-binding”, and never was a more suitable word given. Everyone in the audience is as if under a spell, as we are transported into various other worlds, superimposing each other somewhere in the country near Dunedin. Even the colours of the costumes, in their muted blues and greens, speak of a damp and earthy landscape, and of an age that leaks into those previous. 

The scene is set with an array of boxes, their brown tones again painting a picture of clay and mud. The younger voices around me discuss what the boxes could be for: “Do you think there’s a monster in there?”; “People are going to pop out of them, and little animals, like bunnies”. In a way, they are right, as all sorts of creatures, stories, characters and animals pop out of the boxes, in a variety of ways. There is definitely a monster or two.

The puppetry is expertly done and beautifully so, but it is hard to drag my eyes away from the actors, even when the puppets take over. The three performers, Elle Wootton, Paul Waggott and Ralph McCubbin Howell (who also wrote the play) show great skill in all that is asked of them, switching between multiple characters, singing songs and leading us up the path – the road that wasn’t there – into other worlds full of intrigue, laughter, mystery and a sense of dread.  

There are some quite spooky moments and the show is advertised as being suitable for children aged 8 and upwards. I really do wish parents would read those recommendations as there are a number of much younger children in the audience who threaten to freak out loudly at pivotal moments.  

Tane Upjohn-Beatson does a wonderful job with the composition and sound design, which adds elements of suspense and wonder. In many ways, I am reminded of the novels from my youth: Maurice Gees’ Under the Mountain, and The Halfmen of O, in particular, with the presence of an old dusty man who speaks words of other-worldly wisdom. It is interesting to read that this character is based on the myth surrounding the real life Wellington street-person, Ben Hana, who I will remember forever as ‘Blanket man’, spitting curses on bad days or muttering strange insights on others.

The romantic yet terrifying idea of doorways or pathways to other places is one that has been explored many times, and this time, its a winner.


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Multiple talents delight

Review by Adrienne Matthews 23rd Oct 2014

Nelson’s Suter Theatre is packed out for this performance of Trick of the Light’s The Road That Wasn’t There. The audience consists of a large number of children, as young as three, and I am interested to see how they enjoy what is essentially a play with adult themes of loss, ageing and never giving up on a dream. 

Writer Ralph McCubbin Howell is clever to limit this work to sixty minutes.  It is the perfect length of time to keep such a diverse audience captivated. The Road That Wasn’t There does more than captivate, it thoroughly enchants as the excited crowd exiting the theatre attests. It is a play that works on so many levels. 

A huge collection of cardboard boxes with maps hanging behind like washing on a line provide the perfect setting from which to tell this ‘tall story’.  The set can be transformed instantly and a new chapter easily announced by a quick rearrangement of boxes. The shadow box effects used throughout provide a clever visual enhancement to the story.

Essentially this is a tale about following a dream.  Maggie, played by Elle Wootton, is thought of by the local community as being demented. She is variously called a “cartographic criminal” and “typographic terrorist” due to her habit of stealing maps from everywhere she can, including books in the local library, but we soon realise that all she is trying to do is find again a map of long ago that showed a paper road. 

There are hundreds of paper roads in NZ – spaces put aside when it seemed necessary to allow for future access – particularly in rural areas. They are in essence both real and not real. They are mysterious and ephemeral and yet have consequences for the unwary purchaser of land.  To Maggie, her lost paper road is a highway to her past and she cannot stop searching until she finds it. 

‘Blanket Man’, inspired by Wellington’s homeless Ben Hana whose death sparked an outpouring of sympathy and respect, is an interesting inclusion in the cast. He provides ‘wise’ commentary and is a symbol of knowledge, showing how easily man maketh the myth. 

Maggie is making her own myths as she searches for her past and the dreams left behind there. Gabriel, her son, played by Paul Waggott, who rushes back from England to NZ to sort out his “demented mother” is a delightfully warm character who copes admirably with the ‘chaos’ he finds on his return. Throughout the play he gradually comes to an understanding of why she needs to find the missing paper road. 

Ralph McCubbin Howell is a genius when it comes to changing characters.  His accents are superb as he switches with ease from nosy neighbour Rosie Parker to local superette owner Mr Panesh to Constable Good-One, amongst others. 

The puppetry, made by Hannah Smith (who also directs) and dressed by Nicola Holter, is a lovely addition to the work which allows explanations and revelations to take place throughout.  The puppets are beautifully handled by all the cast members who move seamlessly from moment to moment. 

A highlight for me is the music with all cast members contributing lovely harmonies.  The songs by Tane Upjohn-Beatson are very appropriate and perfectly timed. 

Roads are a wonderful metaphor for a search.  Who doesn’t like to see around the next corner?  Throughout this play there is the sense that we are all on the search with Maggie. This is an old fashioned type of tale and yet contemporary in execution.  As I leave the theatre I hear only bubbles of delight, from young and old. Trick of Light shows off their multiple talents superbly in this work.


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The road to take is one that delight

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 10th Jul 2014

On display at Circa 2 is a lovely example of rich and splendid storytelling. It is a story that will enchant young and old and if it’s the first visit to the theatre for the young it will make sure there’ll be a demand for many more visits.

The absurdly talented and multi-award winning Wellington-based Trick of the Light Theatre first presented The Road That Wasn’t There at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012. It played in the Wellington Fringe last year and then toured the country to great acclaim. [More]


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Flows with a freedom that regenerates the fun afresh

Review by John Smythe 09th 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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Charming, quirky and whimsical

Review by Kimberley Buchan 15th Mar 2013

Trick of the Light Theatre with their eye bending logo have based their piece of theatre, The Road That Wasn’t There, on the 56,000 kilometres of road in New Zealand that exist only on paper. Through the story of a girl who followed one of these roads, playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell and director Hannah Smith examine the creation of legends.

It is a folk tale about a map-napping old lady who touches on the distinction between the world of fantasy and the world of insanity. The lines are further blurred as she is established as a Kiwi connoisseur of the tall tale.

Maggie, played by Elle Wootton, is a fierce and enterprising old woman on the run from her own past. Oliver de Rohan plays her son Gabriel.  He is initially called in to deal with the dementia-type symptoms of his mother but these quickly come to have another interpretation in this play. Ralph McCubbin Howell plays most of the remaining characters with great vocal dexterity, and the whole cast works together seamlessly and with finesse.

In this set, designed by Nick Zwart, legends are born amid piles of cardboard boxes and maps hung out to dry. The constantly repeating image of the map of New Zealand reinforces the idea of the bond between legend and land.

The clear and simple chapter structure of the play keeps the pace humming along. Employing puppets (designed by Hannah Smith), the story is rich with archetypes, as any good legend should be. There are clichéd conventions in the performance but this is what the bones of myth are made of. 

The shadow puppet theatre which flashes out of nowhere adds a gothic theme that is enhanced by the superb soundtrack (Tane Upjohn-Beatson). However, there are times when the grace of the shadow puppets upstages the rest of the action on stage.

The Road That Wasn’t There is a charming play that should be at the top of your Fringe viewing list. It is stuffed full of quirk and is as whimsical as a washing machine full of rotten apples.


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Ingenious blend of elements

Review by Barbara Frame 15th Mar 2013

When is a road not a road? When it’s a paper road – one of those roads that exist on maps, but are not visible in the landscape.

Sometime in Otago’s past Maggie, a resourceful St Bathans lass on her way to the dreaded Woodrot Estate, not only locates such a road between two cabbage trees but follows it. It leads to a place beyond reality, where wonderful things can happen, and wonderful things can turn, without warning, into terrible things. 

Wellington-based Trick of the Light Theatre have put together an ingenious production, directed by Hannah Smith, that draws ideas from recorded history, Maori myth, Shakespeare and sheer imagination. Three versatile performers, Elle Wootton, Oliver de Rohan and Ralph McCubbin Howell (who also wrote the script) populate the story, and they supplement their efforts with shadow and hand-held puppets – beautifully designed, finely detailed and expertly manipulated. An inventive set consists largely of cardboard boxes, and superb lighting and live musical accompaniment add to the production’s professionalism and charm.

The Road that Wasn’t There was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2012 and comes to Dunedin for a four-performance season, ending on Saturday, as part of the Dunedin Fringe Festival. Engaging and gently humorous, it has all the irrational appeal of a good fairy tale, and reminds us of the necessity of dreams. 


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The delightful frisson of dualitie

Review by Erin Harrington 07th Mar 2013

Going to the theatre as a child, I was entranced by the way that something came from nothing – actors breathed life into stories, which in turn breathed life into an empty stage. At the end, everything would be swept away, and puppets that had been living entities became static props, neither sleeping nor dead.

This sense of ‘theatre magic’ and this (for want of a less hackneyed phrased) sense of childlike wonder is expressed fully and lovingly in Trick of the Light’s The Road That Wasn’t There, a fairy tale that combines the adult and the childlike.

Aussie-based bureaucrat Gabriel is called home to St Bathans by frantic phone calls that indicate that his slightly batty mum, Maggie, has gone totally off the rails. She has taken to pinching maps from libraries around the province – “cartographic crime”, “topological terrorism” – and is acting more peculiar by the day.

Gabriel soon learns there is a method to her madness, and the audience is treated to a love story and an unravelling mystery that looks to the stories that spring from cracks and shadows, and the forgotten places that appear in the creases of maps.

The Road That Wasn’t There examines the making and meaning of myth, be it urban or rural, Pakeha or Maori, Kiwi or European. It feels at once familiar and classic while presenting something entirely new, as if the Grimm brothers decided to let their characters run free in small town Otago.

This exploration of liminality, and the allure and danger of in-between places, is further reinforced through the skilful use of shadow puppets and hand-held puppets, made by director Hannah Smith.  The nature of these props – recognisable as human and real yet not quite – evokes a sense of the uncanny, das unheimliche, the familiar made strange.

Three performers – Ralph McCubbin-Howell, Elle Wootton and Oliver de Rohan – play a variety of characters, from monsters, to birds, to small-town eccentrics and a spirit-guide version of Wellington’s Blanket Man. The characterisations are sharp and well-considered, and those that provide the comic relief – such as dairy owner Mr Panesh and busybody neighbour Rosie Parker – augment the story, rather than derailing it.

There is little wasted in McCubbin-Howell’s tight script. It sits at bang on an hour long, and every minute is put to full use. The ease with which The Road That Wasn’t There unravels its storybelies the thoughtfulness of its construction.  The gorgeous music and sound design, by Tane Upjohn-Beatson, is as much a character in the play as the live actors themselves. It is by turns eerie and pretty, and reminiscent of the fairy tale soundtrack to Florian Habicht’s equally storybook-ish 2003 film Woodenhead.

The utilitarian and versatile set, by Nick Zwart, is comprised of large cardboard boxes, which gives the piece a feeling of transience. The sense of fleeting magic is exacerbated the venue, the cluttered backroom of the eccentric Wunderbar in Lyttelton, which features carpet up the walls, a lighting rig that looks like it has descended from the belly of an alien mothership, and a tiny rudimentary stage framed by ragged curtains. All this emphasises the feeling that the show is presented by a band of travelling troubadours who, by morning, will have packed up and disappeared, as if by some enchantment. 

I realise that much of this review revolves around the term “and”, in the coupling of opposites. This emphasis on duality is inherent to the piece itself. As a fairy tale for grown ups, it asks us to suspend disbelief – something that happens very easily here – and enjoy the dissonance and delightful frisson that comes from a meeting of light and dark.

It was received with warmth and enthusiasm in Lyttleton, and provoked laughter, gasps, and tears. It’s such a treat to come out of a show feeling like you’re 8 years old and have just been to see a play for the first time. If for nothing else, Trick of the Light deserves thanks for this. 


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A remarkable romantic fantasy

Review by Lexie Matheson ONZM 26th 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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A unique journey

Review by Matt Baker 25th Feb 2013

Originally performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012, The Road That Wasn’t There, presented by Trick of the Light and embarking on a tour throughout New Zealand, makes its Auckland debut as part of the 2013 Fringe Festival.

Broken into eight protractedly titled chapters, the script weaves between fiction and reality with great ease thanks to the spectacle elements of the show. Puppetry, shadow play, music, and live action all work in great cohesion to support the story-telling. The mirroring and foreshadowing within the script is nicely maintained and revealed, however, there is an overall lack of catharsis for any of the characters, as if the necessary dialogue for these final scenes is missing from the text. Nevertheless, writer and performer Ralph McCubbin Howell has created a wonderfully magic world that not only encompasses the play, but also reinforces the mythical themes within it. Writer’s Notes* should be read and considered. [More


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Road trip show cleverly brought to life

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 15th Feb 2013

The new BATS Theatre venue is really humming with the start of the Fringe Festival and their early evening show, The Road That Wasn’t There by Ralph McCubbin Howell is a real stunner. 

Highly original in concept and presentation, it uses many forms of theatrical conventions to tell its simple but very engaging story.

During the colonisation of New Zealand, many roads were marked out but never constructed. The lower half of the South Island has many more paper roads than any other area.

What happens if someone decides to travel down one of these fictional roads and create a magical world out of what they find?  This is the premise the writer McCubbin Howell has worked on for his story and which Hannah Smith as director has cleverly brought to life.

In a small north Canterbury town lives Maggie (Elle Wooton), an old eccentric lady and local identity.  Her son Gabrielle (Oliver de Rohan), who lives in the city, is called home by the locals to get his mum to move into a rest home.  In the course of clearing out the house Gabrielle finds things from Maggie’s past which brings up memories.  She then begins to relate tales of her growing up in this small rural community including finding a map with a road that didn’t exist.

In her imagination she journeys down this road and meets a host of characters, some friendly and some not so.

The many characters in the story of Maggie’s trip down this road to nowhere is played out by a variety of creatively made puppets and shadow puppets. 

The two actors playing Maggie and Gabrielle, along with Ralph McCubbin Howell, create the many voices and characters behind these puppets which gives life in a most ingenious way to the story.

Aiding the production is Nick Zwart’s set of brown cardboard boxes used most effectively be the actors and Tane Upjohn-Beatson’s wonderfully lyrical and evocative sound track.

Thoroughly enchanting and totally engrossing, The Road That Wasn’t There is a must see show for all ages. 


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Should attract an audience from 8 to 80 anywhere in the world

Review by John Smythe 13th Feb 2013

Quality productions of quirky stories that kids and adults respond to at different levels have long been a feature of international arts festivals in Wellington. Now Trick of the Light Theatre has brought one to the Fringe at Bats, offering an excellent opportunity for younger people to be introduced to the new Dixon / Cuba space.

Presented as “a story about a girl who followed a map off the edge of the world”, The Road That Wasn’t There also resonates as one about adult children having to deal with parents apparently losing their minds. Or is it that Gabriel’s mother, Maggie, just wants to recover the magical imagination she was so reluctant to lose as she entered the adult world?

As the initial and overall story teller, Gabriel (Oliver de Rohan), who works in an Australian city as a rubber-stamping clerk, tells us the tale in eight snappy chapters, starting with the phone calls that finally summon him back home to St Bathans (a former gold and coal mining town deep in the heart of Otago’s Maniototo) to sort out his troublesome Mum.

Maggie (Elle Wootton) has been purloining publicly owned maps and “map napping” cannot be tolerated. Gabe is no longer receptive to the fanciful stories she used to regale him with as a child. But now it’s time to tell him a new one, about his father – whom Gabriel never knew.  

Having used shadow puppets to personify the phone callers – mostly worked and voiced by a so-far unseen Ralph McCubbin Howell – rod puppets (made by director Hannah Smith) are utilised by all three actors to manifest Maggie at 17, her Scottish Mum and Dad, the mystical Blanket Man who lives near the graveyard, Roland the carnival maestro and his son, Walter.

Using a map, young Maggie was supposed to find her way to Woodrot Estate to take up a seamstress job. What unfolds is the journey she took along a paper road that was mapped but never built. “People see what they want to see,” is Blanket Man’s observation.

Amid a slew of splendid performances and characterisations from all three, McCubbin Howell offers a wonderful cameo as the carnival’s song and dance man, Roland, who employs Maggie to make costumes for their planned Captain James Cook show. Walter’s map-making song tops what she calls “the best day in my life!”

Of course romance begins to bud … but losing the map then getting it back to front causes all sorts of problems I won’t detail here (and I’ve only sketched in the story so far: the true magic is in its live performance).  

Other elements are interpolated along the way, like the legend of Kaiamio and the taniwha Kopuwai (adapted from Queenstown’s Te Rapuwai tribe), a home for near-sighted cats … and the Captain James Cook Show is not forgotten either. As a local thespian noted on the steps afterwards, there is much more story content in this 55 minute show that there is in The Hobbit’s three-times longer Unexpected Journey.

Tane Upjohn-Beatson’s compositions and sound designs (incorporating themes created by McCubbin Howell for the last year’s premiere season at the Edinburgh Fringe) makes a huge contribution throughout the show, along with Nick Zwart’s set of cardboard boxes and maps hung out on lines, timeless storybook costumes by Nicola Holter and the lighting by Marcus McShane.  

In a media release, playwright Ralph McCubbin Howell cites as influences the richly imaginative works of Margaret Mahy along with the dark fantasies of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. But he is well past imitating such works. As a true creator, he has drawn from his own world and rich heritage to make a play that – as directed by Hannah Smith and performed by the same actors who brought it to life in Edinburgh – should attract an audience from 8 to 80 anywhere in the world.

“We like to make theatre that is playful, inventive, thought-provoking and that speaks to the here and now,” Trick of the Light’s programme note says. The Road That Wasn’t There certainly does all that, not least in the light of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce’s insistence on ranking vocations according to their earning potential.

While the NZ Fringe in Wellington hasn’t officially opened yet, the new (temporary) Bats – Out Of Site venue is humming with life thanks to these early entries. The all but sold-out Little Town Liars and promising-to-sell-fast The Road That Wasn’t There augur well for a fecund Fringe.


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