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NZ Fringe Festival 2013
Written by Ralph McCubbin Howell
Directed by Hannah Smith
presented by Trick of the Light Theatre

at BATS Theatre (Out Of Site), Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington
From 12 Feb 2013 to 17 Feb 2013

Reviewed by John Smythe, 13 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.
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.

See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Matt Baker (Theatre Scenes - Auckland Theatre Blog);
 Lexie Matheson
 Erin Harrington
 Barbara Frame (Otago Daily Times);
 Kimberley Buchan
 John Smythe (2)
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Adrienne Matthews