REVIEWED BY LIAM GOLDS
A young girl travels between two worlds, connected by the unfinished roads that only exist on maps. Normal rural life gives way to a gold rush past, but mythical dangers lurk in the shadows. Written by Ralph McCubbin Howell and directed by Hannah Smith (Trick of Light Theatre), The Road that Wasn’t There is a story reminiscent of the works of Henry Selick or Roald Dahl. That said, the early New Zealand setting and characters gives it unique twist, a sort of South Island Gothic.
The real draw is the storytelling, a mix of song, shadows, puppetry and real people. The three actors, Elle Wootton, Oliver de Rohan and Howell, all dart on and off the stage, swapping duties as needed. I must admit to being thrown off by the oversized performances from the human cast early on, but quickly realised it was just an extension of the same energy brought to the puppets or shadow figures. They’re living cartoons characters, but the two leads are developed enough that when the play aims for emotional payoffs, it more or less succeeds.
The art direction exhibits a real sense of lo-fi ingenuity, perhaps best seen in the reveal of the titular road. It may just be a simple combination of shadows, light and paper, but that simplicity is charming. The character design tends towards the grotesque, all jagged lines, but the style perfectly suits the dark storybook atmosphere.
This is all set to a combination of live and recorded music. An early gag involving the co-ordination of action to sounds brings to mind something out of Looney Toons, but the focus is on several show stopping song performances. All of these songs are clever, and quite a few are romantic odes to the lost art of cartography. If not every melody is as memorable as that subject matter, the actors all feature strong voices and give it their all.
As you may have noticed by now, The Road that Wasn’t There is rooted in the traditions of children’s entertainment, from the storybook plot to the shadow play to the musical accompaniment. But it doesn’t matter how old you are, kids of all ages are highly recommended to follow this road.