Welcome to Trick of the Light Theatre’s paper world, a weird and wonderful fantasy realm that will captivate both children and grown ups

Older children with a taste for the gothic are in for a treat with Trick of the Light Theatre’s original puppet fairy tale

Like the mythical guardians of their stories, Trick of the Light Theatre man the bridge between ‘shows 4 kids’ and ‘Real Theatre’ with their exploration of the shadowy side of fairy tales in puppetry piece, The Road That Wasn’t There.

‘I’ve always been drawn to those darker fairy tales,’ says director Hannah Smith, ‘I always loved being scared’. Modern gothic works like Pan’s Labyrinth and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline are clear influences, but writer Ralph McCubbin Howell also took inspiration from the folklore of the company’s native New Zealand. ‘I drew on quite a range of myths, both urban and rural. Things like sightings of mythical or extinct creatures, but also Maori legends, are woven into the play’

However, another aspect of New Zealand’s history contributed to his inspiration: the existence of paper roads. These are ‘streets which exist on maps but don’t exist in the real, physical world,’ McCubbin Howell explains. ‘They would draw all these roads onto maps and grant them legal status before they’d even started work or approved them. The area where I grew up had all these paper roads and I was fascinated by that because it seemed like this kind of alternative reality’.

McCubbin Howell combines the classic trope of magical portals with this cultural oddity, sending the protagonist, Maggie, down one of these very paper roads where she finds herself in the realm of a fantastical paper world. This became the jumping off point for the puppets, created by Smith, which were developed in tandem with the story. ‘We started off talking about paper roads so decided to make everything out of paper. That was the touchstone for the design’. On the other hand, she points out, ‘we couldn’t afford any humans’.

The story follows multiple interconnecting storylines, beginning with an old mother recounting her youth before moving into a flashback retelling of her tale. ‘The puppets really lend themselves to the narrative,’ McCubbin Howell says, ‘the story has a few different layers to it and we distinguish them through different forms: live action, puppetry and shadow play.’

Billed under theatre, The Road That Wasn’t There is aimed at both adults and older children. Smith describes it as being in keeping with ‘crossover works that have a foot in childhood and fantasy but are definitely negotiating some real world commentary’, while McCubbin Howell aims to avoid condescension. ‘I remember feeling frustrated as a kid when I felt like shows were talking down to me. As performers, we’ve found that kids are often the savviest audience members. They see right what you’re getting at and they call a spade a spade’.

While they both agree this is ‘a story that’s about family and connection and not losing track of the people that you love’, it’s far removed from the simplistic messages of Disney films. Smith is quick to assert that there’s ‘no neat moral’ to the tale, and instead they prefer to keep things nuanced and open to interpretation. ‘Younger audiences are becoming more sophisticated as they are exposed to more content from such a young age,’ she says. ‘The Fringe is a great opportunity for kids to branch out. People can encounter such a diverse variety of works, and it’s no different in the field of children’s theatre’.

Words: Chiara Margiotta

Photo: Anita Pitu & Ralph McCubbin Howell

Where & When

The Road That Wasn’t There 3-27 August (not 14, 21), Assembly Roxy, 2.35pm, from £10

Tel: 0131 226 0026

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