The first piece of theatre I ever saw was The Snowman and it was the magic of seeing someone flying on stage that drew me in to theatre. I still love the magic of theatre, but it isn’t the trickery of special effects so much as playful and imaginative use of the set and props to hand that I love. I found this in Belt Up Theatre’s shows in The Drawing Room at Edinburgh Fringe 2012 and I saw it again in Trick of the Light Theatre’s The Bookbinder.
The stage is tiny but the story takes on a journey of epic proportions and the narrative has something of a Studio Ghibli quality to it. The tale is of an apprentice bookbinder who is sucked into the world of a book from which he has burned a page. His quest is to mend the hole in the fabric of the world that’s been created by the loss of this page. The characters are archetypal, but each one extremely well executed by performer Ralph McCubbin Howell. He is an excellent storyteller, and the occasional jokes and comments to the audience bring a pleasant quality of self-awareness to the construct of the story.
As with all good fairytales, this story is dark and all the better for it. There is no Disneyfication here as the young boy is warned he may have to sew himself into the book to mend the hole. Everything on stage is made use of to tell this story, the desk Howell is asleep on at the start becomes the stage as the world of the story is literally unfolded from a large tome displaying beautiful papercraft sets by Hannah Smith. Scissors become an acrobatic customer, a pencil stands in for the boy’s leg which gets snapped in two. Mismatched lamps denote the shabby but welcoming interior of the bookbinder’s work room and, as the only source of lighting, are manipulated brilliantly so their shadows become clouds scudding across the sky, or the sun and the moon. At one point, shadow puppetry is used inside the larger of the lamps to depict the boy trapped in an eagle’s nest, a technique eliciting remarks of delight from the audience.
This is a story formed from the love of stories. The programme notes say “we wanted to make something that was intimate and immediate, engaging and surprising – kind of like reading a book” and they have certainly achieved this aim. Their playful object manipulation is delightful to see, and the moment when the character of the boy is passed from actor to small puppet made of pages from a book is wonderful. Music composed by Tane Upjohn Beatson and played through a speaker disguised as a gramophone is an ideal accompaniment to the storytelling, situating the story in the past and folklore tradition. To get a sense of the wonder of this piece you only need to picture the face of the little girl next to me, eyes wide, gasping in delight as sea monsters are created in a jug of water by dropping ink into it. My face looked much the same, and when she commented to her mum “that’s amazing” I wholeheartedly agreed with her.
The Bookbinder is playing at Brighton Fringe until 28th May. For more information and tickets visit www.brightonfringe.org