Brighton Fringe 2016
‘The Bookbinder’ is billed in the Fringe Brochure as ‘storytelling’, and to be fair, that’s what we got. But we got a lot more than just a recital of some words. The show managed to create a little self-contained world, like a jewel nestling on a velvet cushion, where a present-day Homer spun us a tale of mystery and adventure.
Ralph McCubbin Howell was sitting at his desk as we went into the Dukebox. An old-fashioned desk, with a Victorian desk lamp on it, and a standard lamp in the same style off to one side. Lamps at either side of the stage, too, on small tables, all casting pools of soft warm light. He’s in his late twenties, with dark hair and a luxuriant beard and moustache – the full set. An old fashioned gramophone, the kind with a big horn, was playing music as we came in, then stopped, with a ticking sound as the needle ran round the inner track. “Bloody newfangled technology”, said the man, as he changed the disc to another 78 – which neatly told us which era we’d stumbled into.
The man had on a brown craftsman’s apron – he’s a bookbinder. There was a sign on the front of the desk – ‘Apprentice Sought’ – and it seems that we were applying for the post. A heavy volume sat on the desk in front of the him, bound in tooled red leather. He ran his hands over the cover as he told us that bookbinding is a trade where you have to take a lot of care – “things can go awry for those who get distracted”.
The Dukebox is a small venue, and the bookbinder was able to make eye contact with each of us as he opened the weighty cover of the book – “You can get lost in a good book – but it’s worse to get lost in a bad one …”.
Howell is a very accomplished storyteller. His voice had a rich, warm timbre as the narrator; he’s obviously from New Zealand, but he slipped effortlessly into a range of different accents and registers to become the various characters in his tale. And what a variety! – we were introduced to the young apprentice himself, but also his family, rough sailors, exotic foreign women, and a whole range of animals who help him in his quest. Because of course this is a classic quest, a fairytale – there are obstacles to be overcome and dangers to be faced, before a final resolution. I wasn’t joking when I talked about Homer earlier – Howell’s tale had many features in common with ‘The Odyssey’.
There are many storytellers – what made this storyteller different was the book. As he turned the pages, paper cut-outs and drawings popped up to illustrate a location or a character. They were created by Hannah Smith, who also directed the show and co-wrote the original story – clearly a talented woman. Beautifully done, like the wood-block engravings made centuries ago – heavy lines, rich black against the yellowing paper of the leather-bound volume.
But there was a problem – the detail was too small to make out clearly. The scale of the illustrations was dwarfed by size of the desk and the Dukebox stage. The bookbinder would talk, and the scene would rise up from the page – but even from just two rows back I could only make out a confusing jumble of small shapes. Howell invited us up to the desk at the end of the show, to look at the book close up, and the cutting and illustrating was indeed enchanting. But we’d missed out on all that detail during the narrative itself, which made the experience far less satisfying.
Ralph McCubbin Howell himself doesn’t simply narrate. As the tale progressed he occasionally leapt up from the desk with a puppet or a cut-out in hand, to swoop around the stage. Even when seated at the book, every bit of his physicality – body tension, eye movements, hand gestures – put extra meaning and emphasis into his words. Trick of the Light are from New Zealand, and there were often little informal asides to the audience. At one point Howell is talking about tears – “…floods of tears, literally floods. And when he said ‘literally’, he meant it, because a lot of people don’t”. Great stage presence.
A great soundtrack too, by Tane Upjohn Beatson – a haunting assemblage of electronic music, weird ethereal tones evoking the mythical locations of the story. Together with the soft pools of light I’ve described earlier, it felt like we were peering through some gap in the fabric of time, back to an earlier world. Ideally, the show would work better in a smaller space – we’re told it premiered in the back room of a bookshop – but try to catch it wherever you can. A gem.