The Bookbinder

Reviewed by Flossie Waite
Trick of the Light Theatre
Reviewed at Traverse Theatre as part of Imaginate Festival
At Imaginate until 5th June
For ages 8+

The diversity of Imaginate’s programming is a constant delight. Over the past six days I’ve seen provocative piece The Jurywith its clever use of projections; the big, bold dance show Constellations; surreal shows like Traces and Fluff – A Story of Lost Toys; the Blue Block Studio installation for the very youngest culture lovers, and this afternoon, something completely different. The Bookbinder is a kind of back-to-basics production, a small, intimate show focused entirely on a strong story and simple staging.

There are three keys to being a bookbinder. Don’t cut corners, don’t do anything that can’t be undone, and don’t eat baked beans for breakfast (it’s not polite when you’re working in confined spaces). When one boy stumbles into a bookbinder apprentice role, he struggles to remember these rules – one thing leads to another, and he somehow creates a huge hole in the world’s fabric. It’s a risky clean-up job that takes him under the sea with terrifying creatures and inside the nest of flesh-eating birds, in a dark fairytale full of twists and turns.

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 15.25.17

Narrative and design converge in this one-man show, as Ralph McCubbin Howell leads us through his book-based tale using a huge tome that reveals pop-up landscapes and paper people. The story jumps off the page and into the bookbinder’s office: stationery doubles as the shop’s customers (including a pair of scissors who love to do star jumps); just a drop of ink in a jug and it becomes a murky ocean. The use of lights is particularly clever, including a simple desk lamp that shifts from monster to father, casting a spotlight and plunging the auditorium into darkness. The soft lamplight is the perfect choice for a show that ranges from cozy storytelling session to slightly scary adventure.

The wider framing device, with its reminders that the best lessons come from books, is slightly clunky and cliched, and for a show that relies on intensely-concentrated listening it feels a bit long. That said, the audience sat in silence, enthralled by the thrilling tale: “That was amazing!” said the girl in front of me after it had ended. “That was more than amazing,” said her friend.

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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