With Hollywood’s recent adaptation of his works, the name JRR Tolkien has come to be associated with huge spectacle and epic scope. So much so that it’s easy to forget that the man himself was a shy, quiet sort of chap – temperamentally closer to the pastoral idyll of The Shire than the clamour of a battlefield.
Leaf by Niggle is a beautiful, quiet tale matched by a beautiful, quiet performance.
It’s this spirit that Puppet State’s Richard Medrington brings to life in this retelling of one of Tolkien’s lesser-known tales, the story of Niggle – a little man of no particular importance and but one singular talent – the painting of leaves. We follow him through a life of small kindnesses, slightly underachievement and harmless meandering, through an unexpected journey and its unforeseen significance.
As our window into this life, Medrington is a warm presence – very much as one might imagine Tolkien; casting a benevolent if slightly-disapproving eye over Niggle’s day to day and celebrating the gentle wonder of a life lived with the best of intentions.
Despite exhorting his audience not to read too much into Leaf by Niggle – Tolkien, by all accounts, being loathed to see his work as allegory – Medrington still gives the tale extra depth by subtly interweaving his own family history.
Choice objects turned up in Medrington’s exploration of his mother’s attic act as a guide to this history, a story attached to each; the tiny cigar-box ladder made by his grandfather who served alongside Tolkien at the Somme; the cards belonging to an ancestor born with his heart on the wrong side of his body; the book of his mother’s beautiful sketches and the delicate shawl belonging to his maternal grandmother.
All of these find their place as the tale unfolds – a shawl as a green hill, the ladder mirrored in Niggle’s own studio, the sketchbooks echoing a talent unappreciated in its time - even one character’s reference to Niggle as having his heart ‘in the right place’. It’s these touches which serve to keep us rooted and gripped by a story in which moves very gently from start to finish.
Leaf by Niggle is a beautiful, quiet tale matched by a beautiful, quiet performance. Though not the sword and sorcery epic that one might expect, it still serves to reinforce a very Tolkienesque and very important lesson – not all those who wander are lost.