The great appeal of a fringe festival is that there’s always something to surprise, maybe even delight. With their one-person show The Bookbinder, NZ company A Trick of the Light present an endearing volume of storytelling and puppetry “for curious children and adventurous adults”.
Inspired by the works of Chris Van Allsburg and Neil Gaiman, The Bookbinder hints at its intent through a portentous Fringe guide blurb: “They say you can get lost in a good book. But it’s worse getting lost in a bad one…”.
Writer and skilled performer Ralph McCubbin Howell as the titular character takes us on a journey of how an apprentice bookbinder comes to learn the pitfalls of not respecting his trade, modulating his voice and manner to play a range of characters. Under the direction of designer Hannah Smith, the tale is the stage equivalent of a page-turner; several seasons of NZ performances conferring a finish on the piece not always seen in a fringe show. And, The Bookbinder is mostly true to the sentiment of its narrator: “The best stories tend to unfold in ways you never quite expect”.
Told from inside the bookbinder’s workshop, his equipment and books serve to illuminate the landscapes and characters of the apprentice’s exploits. This approach gives the piece a quaint charm, which coupled with McCubbin Howell’s bushy beard, half-moon glasses and tan apron make it very easy to believe in the storyteller. Music by Tane Upjohn Beatson suitably enhances the mood.
If I were to quibble, there was the odd line from the Father of the apprentice that seemed to go for a goofy kind of humour, which seemed incongruous with the style of the story.
Minor blemish aside, through novelty of the props, and a focused narrative that left gaps to tantalize our intuition (rather than explaining the tale to death), the silent opening-night audience were completely engaged. I found the performance highly successful at binding my attention, my only regret is that I didn’t get a better look at that paper art. Adults and children keen for a yarn should down tools to witness the The Bookbinder’s storytelling craft.