The New Zealand that never was

Originally published February 7, 2013 in Capital Times. 

What does it take to go from the apex of Fringe Festivals – Edinburgh – to Wellington’s own three week bonanza of performance? Sixty puppets, 56,000 roads that only exist on paper, and a very large suitcase. Amanda Witherell walks down The Road That Wasn’t There with Ralph McCubbin Howell and Hannah Smith. 

Once upon a time, in the small north Canterbury town of Waikari, there was a plan to put a road over the mountains to the west coast. The planners envisioned a rail system, bustling settlements, and a web of roads connecting them. The idea was committed to paper, but in the end two different roads – Arthur’s Pass and Lewis Pass – were constructed over the Southern Alps.

“I remember being a kid and seeing all these maps of towns that didn’t exist and being really fascinated by that,” says Howell, who grew up in Waikari. “What if they did exist and took you to another world?”

“The world that might have been,” pipes up Smith, his thespian partner. The two make plays as Trick of the Light Theatre. They were living in Bristol, England, and bound for the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival when they conceived their new work, The Road That Wasn’t There.

“When they were settling New Zealand they granted these roads legal status even though they didn’t exist or are just thin strips of land,” continues Smith. “It’s not unique to New Zealand but it happened a lot here because of the time that the country was settled.”

The country’s 56,000 roads that only exist on paper is a concept “so strange and fantastic it was calling for a play,” says Howell.

The story takes the familiar arch of a quest, to and from a magical world, with the kind of crossover appeal of fantasy writers Neil Gaiman, Tim Burton, and Margaret Mahy. The main character, a working stiff in the city, must return home and move his ill and aged mother to a retirement facility, and in the course of packing her things she tells him the story of how she met his father and what happened when she walked down a road that, technically, didn’t exist.

“Subliminally, we were living away from home and we wanted to create something that we connected with and which was familiar and we decided not to pander to an audience that was uninformed about New Zealand,” says Howell.

It was also a point of difference for them to exploit at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as they competed with more than 2,500 other shows to build an audience. Turns out a family-friendly New Zealand narrative full of puppets is a winning combination, packing the house most nights for the month they performed on a tiny side stage with a pillar down its centre.

“We had a really great run. Full houses the whole month, nice reviews, and we made money which was a miracle,” says Smith.

Both South Islanders by birth, they came to Wellington to study theatre at Victoria University and are veterans of the Wellington Fringe Festival scene –Best of the Fringe in 2008 with March of the Meeklings, Pick of the Fringe in 2009 with A Most Outrageous Humbug, and Best again in 2010 with Who’s Neat? You! As Trick of The Light they made their first flash in 2011with The Engine Room, netting five Chapman Tripp nominations (Howell took home the award for Outstanding New Playwright.) A humorous, critical look at how the 1981 Springbok tour affected New Zealand’s political landscape, played by four actors, it’s a very different production from four puppeteers wielding 60 different handmade puppets in The Road That Wasn’t There.

“It still holds to the same values,” says Howell. “We want to make theatre that’s intelligent and engaging. That doesn’t shift when you’re working with kids.”

“This is not exclusive to children,” Smith adds. “An issue like what do I do with my doolally Mum – that’s real to our generation.”

Post-Fringe, The Road That Wasn’t There will return Howell to his hometown as they plan to perform in other cities, small towns, and the off-the-map places like Waikari and St Bathans that inspired the play – a prospect that excites them both.

The Edinburgh constraints of a tiny stage and the need to be portable meant the play was created on a shoestring, in spite of 60 puppets – all of which fit into one suitcase for the flight home to New Zealand.

“They didn’t like it that much,” says Smith.

“They needed a little TLC after the long flight from the UK,” agrees Howell.

I hope they won’t mind at least one more trip to spread some good theatre.


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