I WAS A RAT!
The Old Rep, Birmingham, Saturday 2nd March, 2013
Philip Pullman’s enchanting story is brought to life in this adaptation for the stage by Teresa Ludovico, who also directs. The story has a fairytale feel and there are also elements of Oliver Twist and Pinocchio. It begins when a peaceful evening of sharing stories from the newspaper (Bob and Joan reminded me of a West Indian Meg and Petey in Pinter’s The Birthday Party) is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a boy, dressed as a footman. The boy has a peculiar type of amnesia. He can only claim “I was a rat!” and knows nothing of table manners or the wide world in general. The old couple consult a range of authorities: legal, medical, educational, before deciding they will adopt the strange boy for themselves. Except it is too late. Trouble at school means the boy, now named Roger, goes on the run. The media – namely a newspaper called the Daily Scourge – stirs up public opinion against him, and before long people are in fear of the ‘monster’ among them. Roger falls in with the wrong sorts (circus folk and criminals) and is captured and put on trial for his life.
It’s fast-moving, inventive fun with the emphasis on the agility and versatility of the performers, who dash around and move like a commedia dell’arte troupe, using grotesque masks and mime to enhance their physicalisation of a range of characters. Tyrone Huggins and Lorna Gayle are endearing as the caring old married couple, not too old to have a snowball fight when the mood takes them. Christopher Dingli amuses as the bureaucratic stickler in City Hall, Dodger Phillips is a grotesque dame as ringmaster’s wife Mrs Tapscrew, complete with a frock that resembles the big top; and Jack Jones is hilarious as Mrs Cribbins. This is not a show about subtlety and is all the better for it. TJ Holmes’s Philosopher Royal brings a touch of the Absurd, rather like Alice’s Caterpillar with his musings and pronouncements. Menace comes from Joey Hickman’s burglar Billy.
There is no scenery: spaces are delineated by lighting. High chairs are wheeled on and off for characters of high status. The cast mime most of the props while helpful hands appear from the wings to provide sound effects. It all seems simple but it’s inventive and above all, theatrical. David Watson’s English version of the script has more than a hint of satire to it. As well as the overtly topical lines about the horsemeat scandal, there is a timely nudge to the brouhaha about the media’s portrayal of a ‘plastic princess’ (to borrow Hilary Mantel’s words) – the Princess Aurelia is a puppet, a disembodied manikin’s head with gloves and shoes! It’s a witty script; a scene in the sewers gives a cheeky nod to Les Mis – there is as much to entertain the adults in the audience as the kids.
Luigi Spezzacatene’s costumes add to the fairytale-cum-Dickensian feel. The police are flamboyantly Ruritanian. Even the police dog gets an extravagant uniform. The rats are simply portrayed through movement but their flashlight eyes lend them an air of otherness.
The undoubted star of the piece is Fox Jackson-Keen as ex-rat Roger. A charming portrayal of an innocent abroad in a wicked world on one hand; on the other, a dazzling display of dance and gymnastic, acrobatic ability. His ‘circus act’s tops the show.
The happy ending is satisfying but so understated it lacks emotional punch; nevertheless you will be hard-pressed to find a more energetically entertaining family show currently on the circuit.