Guardian Feature


Heath Robinson reconstructed

✒ In Pinner Memorial Park on the north-western fringe of London last Sunday afternoon, a man wearing a tall, yellow witch-style hat and a red sash could be seen darting between the bushes, pursued by a crowd of children. This was Uncle Lubin, a character created by the artist William Heath Robinson more than 100 years ago but largely forgotten about since The Adventures of Uncle Lubin fell out of print.

Joe Hancock of Burn the Curtain theatre company is among those who remember Uncle Lubin very well. He pored over Robinson’s illustrations as a child, and when he went looking for a children’s book to turn into a new piece of outdoor promenade theatre – following last year’s version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lubin’s quest to rescue his baby nephew from the beak of the wicked Bag-bird came to mind.

So he contacted the Heath Robinson Trust, keepers of 500 works of Heath Robinson’s art which they hope soon to display in a purpose-built extension to West House in Pinner Memorial Park. Last weekend members of the trust, including the artist’s great-nephew Peter Higginson, joined the audience as Burn the Curtain brought his fabulous tale back to life.

Heath Robinson, who lived in Pinner for 10 years, made his living from advertising and comic illustrations for newspapers and magazines. Most often remembered for his imaginary machines – a model of his mechanical household “The Gadgets” was built for the Ideal Home exhibition in 1934 – he was also a prolific book illustrator who worked on editions of Rabelais, Edgar Allan Poe and Shakespeare.

But Uncle Lubin was a one-off – Heath Robinson never wrote another children’s story. And though Burn the Curtain have excised the more violent chapters to avoid terrifying their audience – hapless Lubin somehow manages to kill both a sea-serpent and a dragon-snake in the book – and added female parts including a gorgeous, bottom-waggling queen bee, many details of their ingenious and charming production are true to the original.

Lubin’s costume is copied exactly from the drawings, so are the giant Bag-bird puppet with its pelican beak, and the submarine that bears Lubin on the underwater phase of his quest – and which is assembled from lobster pots by the children during the performance in a neat allusion to Heath Robinson’s comic fascination for machines.

Susanna Rustin