[Off the Beaten Track]
Framed as a story within a story, cleverly designed to appeal to both the cynics and dreamers inside all of us, The Road that Wasn’t There unfolds through the fantastical tales of Maggie (Elle Wootton), while her adult son, Gabriel (Paul Waggott), considers moving her into a retirement home so she can be better looked after.
Taking cues from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the story is broken up into a series of short and sharp chapters, the headings of which are beautifully projected onto the set. It evokes shades of all the best fairytales and adventures without feeling like a cheap imitation. From Peter Pan to Coraline and even shades of Star Wars, all while firmly placing itself in a shifting period backdrop of St Bathans.
In its incredibly tight 1 hour running time, the play builds an entire world filled with imaginative detours. All the various minor characters that pop up (played by writer Ralph McCubbin Howell) also fill out the world with various different colourful charactersiations. Though the staging is relatively minimalist, scene changes and new environments are elegantly suggested through the storytelling. With a brilliant mashup of live performers, quaint musical numbers and puppetry (both marionettes and shadows), The Road that Wasn’t There feels fully formed and theatrically fresh. Though, I must admit to being slightly taken aback by the couple of racial stereotypes that inhabit the world.
While not without cheesy and childlike humour, it’s balanced nicely with relatably adult gags and serious emotion. The circumstances the characters are thrown in, no matter how unbelievable or silly at first, are never taken for granted. It’s the same characteristic that makes Pixar films so successful. Children’s theatre doesn’t mean dumbed down in this case. If anything, director Hannah Smith, uses that often patronising label as a reminder to present the story with absolute clarity rather than condescension.
This is family friendly entertainment at its best. Children’s theatre that does more than aim to entertain kids, it aims to remind the whole audience of what it is to see through childlike lenses. The story also never shies away from darker side of fairytales and is genuinely spooky when it wants to be, toying with New Zealand gothic and dark myth-making, displaying some of the finest examples of evoking horror on stage without being gratuitous.
It’s hard to imagine a more effective gateway drug to drag the hook the next generation of young theatregoers into the joys of theatre. Or, even better, to make true believers out of the most jaded adults.
The Road that Wasn’t There plays at the Herald Theatre until 15 July. Details see Auckland Live