THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 12th December, 2012
The RSC’s Christmas family show this year is Tamsin Oglesby’s adaptation of Russell Hoban’s 1968 novel for children. Hoban, I have found, is an acquired taste – and one which I have yet to acquire. Presented on stage before my very eyes, the similarities with the works of Samuel Beckett are plain to see – and, guess what, I’ve never really taken to Beckett either.
Angela Davies’s set is magnificent; its circles and holes and suspended cotton reels and so on, suggest all at once the cosmos, the cogs and components of clockwork, and also gives us a sense of scale. The toy and animal characters are the size of human actors, of course – their microcosm is a representation of our world, our society.
It begins with the clockwork toys, the titular Mouse and his Child waking up – or becoming aware – in a toy shop. Right away we are plunged into Beckettian questions of existence. The absurdist nature of life soon becomes apparent and runs through the entire piece. As I said earlier, I’m not a Beckett fan. We get glimpses of Vladimir and Estragon, and Pozzo and Lucky, for example – even the supporting chorus members are dressed as tramps.
But the material is also familiar in other ways. I couldn’t stop thinking about A. I. (Artificial Intelligence) in which the constructed character seeks validation and recognition as a living being in his own right – which is itself derivative of Pinocchio. Indeed, the Mouse and the Child are forced to perform, much as the little wooden boy had to for Stromboli. In this instance, it’s within a rather avant garde theatre company run by two crows and a parrot, who in turn brought to mind the Crummles from Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby... There is something Dickensian too about the milieu in which the protagonists find themselves. The baddie, Michael Hodgson as Manny the Rat, has more than a hint of Fagin about him as he despatches his band of rats to steal and scavenge bits and bobs. The Mouse and the Child long to be self-winding just as Pinocchio yearned to be a real boy. It’s all a metaphor for growing up and being independent, but also having free will as living beings.
The costumes are inconsistent in their effectiveness. I couldn’t tell what some of the characters were meant to be; had it not been for the captioning for the deaf, I may never have known that the two cloaked figures with Merseyside accents were supposed to be hawks, but on the whole the production is a visual delight – and an aural one too, thanks to the marvellous musicians who remain on stage and complement the action with cartoon-like sound effects.
I particularly liked Carla Mendonca as the graceful, dignified maternal figure, an elephant on roller skates, and Daniel Ryan as the Mouse makes a warm-hearted Dad. Unfortunately, I couldn’t warm to Bettrys Jones as the Child. I found the characterisation too shouty and too strident. There needs to be moments of cuteness and vulnerability. Long before the end, I found I didn’t care what happened to him. David Charles is likeable as a kind of new age hippy weirdo frog, who prophecises doom and success in equal measure, complete with 1960s psychedelic effects. Julia Innocenti provides a neat comic turn as Ralphie, a rat unhindered by his lack of intelligence, and the entire company clowns around energetically. There is a fight scene to evict the baddies from the doll’s house (like routing the weasels from Toad Hall) that is an orgy of cartoon violence and very funny. Paul Hunter’s direction gives us moments of inventiveness and humour in a scattergun approach. Not all the gags hit the mark but those that do keep you interested.
Michael Hodgson dominates as the quirky Manny who is cured of his evil compulsions when his plan to burn everyone to death backfires and results in a dose of electro-shock therapy. This is just one of the many moments of darkness in the piece. It’s no cute and cuddly adventure and it certainly isn’t twee. I just wasn’t won over by the material, despite the talent, energy and creativity that went into the performance.