To speak to the show itself, it is all just a little bit magical. From the program to the puppets, all is crafted, exquisite and delicate. We, as an audience, are cast as Apprentice, and from the first line are swept up into the story. The script is endearing, clever, and with punches of humour to avoid the dustiness that plagues traditional Hero’s journey tales… and what a Hero’s journey! This is a classic and narratively solid story, magic aside. The accent work, book puns, delicate figurines, cut-outs, and use of water and ink add the spice that brings the story off the page, and justifies it theatrically aside from a firm written narrative.
It is a delight to watch McCubbin Howell revel in the rippling laughter as it passes through the audience, and stay present and joyful throughout the performance. His energy is unwavering, and the production as a whole, coupled with his delivery, fully embodies the mantra that ‘the joy is in the telling’. The listening, and watching, is incidentally also a bloody good time, and we ride through mischief, delight, and at moments sheer terror with our loveably roguish protagonist; the bookbinder boy.
The intricate props are seamlessly used, and the magic of the world we tumble joyfully into is made concrete by the exquisite sound design of Tane Upjohn Beatson. The music throughout, mostly apparently from an antique gramophone set to one side, binds us within this other place. I won’t go into detail about specific tricks of the light, because they should remain tricks on the night, but beware, your children (and the wee kids we have inside us all) may fall in love with the illusion and run away to the theatre forevermore!
And now to speak to the wider engagement… since seeing one of the lovely posters for this show, designed by Ed Watson, in Wai-te-ata press when I was recently there for an unrelated talk, I marvelled at just how they’d managed to sneak a poster into the workshop of one of the few manual printers left in New Zealand. It seems that this company prioritises this thorough approach, having been set in Arty Bee’s bookshop last year for their Fringe Season, and now having borrowed books and shelves from Ferret Bookshop and Arty Bees. The incredible vocabulary and knowledge of process exhibited in the piece also shows a level of study which indicates a deep engagement with the culture of Bookbinding in New Zealand. The set took me back to a library I had visited in Grenoble last year, where, behind glass, screeds of books appeared, but were nothing more than printed images of spines. When my travel companion alerted me to the repetition of colours, the opaque distant flatness of the spines, their same perfect depth, the magic was broken. Trick of the Light works furiously to have no such moment of disillusionment, and as such in this small way the grandeur of the set outdid one of the most historic libraries in France. Not bad.
Beyond this care and attention to detail, Trick of the Light also appear to want to engage with the community, and fiercely. Their program welcomes feedback, they invite the audience to stay behind and gaze at the props, to play and share, and it works! As the audience files in prior to performance, those behind me in the second row discuss the books they have in storage, the cumbersome nature of keeping stories, the smell of tales stored away deep in the bottom of boxes and at the backs of shelves. And after the show, a veritable swarm of craning necks and patient ears, wanting to hear about process, prop construction, or even just to turn the pages of that mighty book which guides the story!
In a city as close knit as Wellington, it is easy for waves to appear from thin air, for small biases to grow into poisonous rifts, and Trick of the Light's positive, focused, growth-oriented and welcoming attitude shows impetus in the opposite direction, to a Theatre culture that is open and joyful.
Within the narrative, there are moments of joy in the darkness, high drama and soft spoken prose all wrapped up together, and this intrinsic attitude of absolute optimism, which overall, makes a grand gift to the stage and to our community as artists.