Print Page

Ralph McCubbin Howell

Be spell-bound by the intimate world of The Bookbinder

They say you can get lost in a good book. But it’s worse to get lost in a bad one.

After meeting whilst studying theatre at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, Ralph McCubbin Howell and Hannah Smith established Trick of the Light Theatre and have not looked back.

An instant hit on the festival circuit, the award-winning company is set to return to Australia this year with their endearing production The Bookbinder. Inspired by the works of Neil Gaiman, Diana Wynne Jones and Chris Van Allsburg, An endearing volume of storytelling and puppetry is perfect for “curious children and adventurous adults.”

We chatted with writer and performer, Ralph McCubbin Howell ahead of the tour to find out more about this magical show.

Image by Stephen Coulter

You wrote and perform in the show. What inspired this original fairytale?
We originally made the show for NZ Fringe in 2014. We liked the idea of staging a show between the shelves of a bookshop, so created a story based in a world of books and storytelling. By chance, around the same time a friend of mine met a bookbinder in Oamaru called Michael O’Brien who he suggested we meet. We drove down and had a yarn with Michael about his apprenticeship and his craft, and his stories informed our tale as well. It’s also inspired by traditional fairy tales and works of contemporary fantasy – writers like Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clarke.

Can you please tell us about the different theatre techniques you use in the show?
It’s a solo storytelling show, which draws on many different techniques. There’s a bit of shadow puppetry, and a lot of prop manipulation. We had a rule when making the show that the story should be told using objects you might find on a bookbinder’s workbench (also, objects we had lying around our living room), and that each one should be used at least twice – first as what it was, and then transformed into something else. So scissors become star-jumping gymnasts, and ink becomes a monster. At the centre of the play is a large pop-up book with the pages made out of the story itself. There are lots of tiny (obsessive) details, so it’s worth coming up to have a closer look at the end of the show. 

How has the show developed over time? Have you changed much?
The show has changed hugely over its lifetime. We first made it very quickly – writing, making and rehearsing the show over a couple of weeks – before throwing it in front of an audience. As it was a solo show, and we were performing to a tiny audience (about 20 each night), it was easy to read which bits people were responding to – where they were getting bored or confused, which jokes were flying and which were falling flat – so each night we cut bits and added bits and played around with the structure. The show remains an ever-evolving beastie and we’re still making changes – we’ve just made our third pop-up book, and Riverside audiences will be the first in Australia to see this new version.

When touring you have to travel lightly. Do you change the props you use depending on how far you travel? What is the most interesting prop you travel with?
The show packs down into a couple of suitcases so it’s very travel friendly. When we’re performing overseas we have the venues provide us with the furniture we use in the show – chairs, tables, and lampstands. Sometimes places get really into this – when we performed in Western Australia State Library last year they decorated the bookshelves around us with spider’s webs. The most interesting prop we travel with is probably our wind-up gramophone. Before we had our travel cases, we couldn’t fit the horn in our luggage, so would take it on the plane with us as if it was a strange golden hat. 

Are you excited to be returning to Australia for a tour? Are Australian audiences unique in their reactions to the show?
We’ve found Australian audiences like to laugh a lot, so performing in Australia is a lot of fun. There are a few NZ colloquialisms that Australian audiences get, but which go over people’s heads when we perform overseas. In the story the boy gets lost in the bush, and when we’ve performed in England we’ve had a couple of people ask us how he got lost in a shrub.  

Image by Philip Merry / axolotl photography

What do you hope to achieve with this show? Who will this show appeal to?
The show is a cross-over piece that appeals to both adults and older kids. We’re not into kids’ theatre that’s warm and fuzzy and full of bright colours, or shows that talk down to their audience. When we made this show we wanted to make something that would appeal to us when we were kids – something funny and smart and a little bit scary. We’ve found audiences really respond to this, and hopefully it encourages more of this kind of theatre.

What do you think makes a great story?
Our favourite stories have a good dose of both dark and light. When F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing The Great Gatsby, he spoke about wanting to write something that was “extraordinary and beautiful and simple & intricately patterned” and this is a description that we think applies to many great stories.

What makes storytelling on stage the best “bedtime story” for the young and young at heart?
It isn’t. Otherwise we end up with heaps of people sleeping on stage, which is a real hassle. That said, we do try to capture something of the intimacy of a bedtime story, drawing the listener in to an extraordinary tale, and creating vast worlds out of words.

What is your favourite story and why?
This is a terrifying question. There are too many to choose from. Right now, I’ve been reading Icelandic sagas which are great in telling these sweeping epics that cut to the chase. Also, I really like Iceland.


Based upon a story by Ralph McCubbin Howell and Hannah Smith

From award-winning New Zealand company Trick of the Light Theatre comes a spell-binding story of mystery, magic and mayhem. The Bookbinder weaves shadow play, paper art, puppetry and music into an original fairytale in the vein of Coraline and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The theatre is transformed into the gothic world of an antiquated bookshop where a young apprentice is swept into the sinister world of the books he binds. An inventive one-man performance for the curious and adventurous.

Suitable for adults and older children (Ages 8+)

Dates & Times:
Wednesday 15 March at 6pm
Schools performances also available


Explore more from the riverside blog

Jay needs some pictures of animals for his show – farmyard animals, wild animals, he would love to see them all and he will thank you, by giving you a shoutout during the show too!
The live stream concert series has received strong community support, including from the corporate sector. Property company PAYCE bought a number of tickets to support the concert series and the local community.
While our doors are currently closed we have collated a list of resources that might help you to continue to connect your students to the magic of live theatre. Here are some great online tools which showcase theatre and the arts in different onli...

Be the first to know what's on

Want to receive news and special offers from Riverside Theatre? Join our mailing list