March 13th, 2013


I was a rat

Philip Pullman's novel I Was A Rat is pure juvenilia although, as with many of his stories, there is sufficient insight to engage adults. Teresa Ludovico's adaptation for the stage is much darker; not so much a children's show as one for entire families because younger viewers will need larger ones for reassurance. "I was a rat" asserts Fox Jackson-Keen (previously of Billy Elliot) when he arrives one night on the doorstep of an old couple who are divided on his story of being a boy who was once a rat. This couple ground the high fantasy of what might happen to one of Cinderella's rat footmen who missed the midnight appointment to turn back into rodent form. All the performances offered something special but the harbinger of just how special this show would be was the arrival of the rat boy's mother and his ratty brothers; they were a tumbling distracted swarm of great physicality. In a plain black set lit with stripes of raking light (designed by Vincent Longuemare) the rich costumes (designed by Luigi Spezzacatene) are thrown into stark chiarascuro that adds to the menace and contrasts with the flat mundane lighting of the aged couple and their environment. The entire show is about contrasts: belief and disbelief; crime and law; justice and injustice; light and dark; trust and fear.

The ratboy's world is a brutal series of rejections and exploitation as the couple try to find who has lost him and then lose him themselves. A psychiatrist dismisses his case, officialdom has no time for him, and school is more about violence than learning. He cannot even make a life as a ratboy in a travelling show because he is too polite. And it is here in the show that we encounter the most scary of all the costumes: the nightmarish clowns worried some of the little theatregoers around us although they loved the comedy policemen with their funny dog. I expected the younger audience members to be alarmed by the pest doctors that formed the parliament with all eight of the cast in the familiar beaky masks of Venetian masquerade but they loved the pontificating and posturing as the ratboy's fate was debated.

Rescued from the travelling show by the leader of a criminal gang, the ratboy is caught aburgling and jailed for his crime. At this nadir he is visited by the recently married princess who is literally all costume in a masterstroke of theatrical design. In the first act there had been moments that felt as though the production was trying too hard for virtuosity but it hit its stride after the interval and I have to admire the Birmingham Rep for commissioning this English version and the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, for booking such an avant garde performance for the provinces.
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