I Was A Rat! – Reviewed

A new production at the Playhouse is a show dead-set on pleasing all of the people all of the time. Is it a success?

Demonisation of children and a scurrilous tabloid press in a society where chilling inequality is rife and clear for all to see. Themes of a new production riffing on modern-day takes of kitchen sink drama? Or issues brushed aside ahead of the forthcoming budget, perhaps? Not quite; in fact, these are all things running very near the surface of Bari-based Teatro Kismet’s production of Philip Pullman’s I Was A Rat!

Anyone familiar with Pullman’s approach to dark fairytale and fantasy written primarily for children (most famously illustrated with the His Dark Materials trilogy) will certainly have had an inkling of what to expect from this new production, its first professional rendering in the UK.

I Was A Rat! is the story of a boy (decked out in footman’s uniform, a clue to a riddle solved come the end) who turns up on the doorstep of old married couple Bob and Joan one cold, dark night. Taking its title from the first words the boy utters to his would-be protectors, while written slap bang in the middle of the same period as his celebrated trilogy, though it steers clear of direct borrowing of narrative traits, there’s no doubting that it shares some of the motifs.

“For a show carrying an age recommendation of 7+, there are some real meaty issues here”

Christened Roger by his defacto parents, our hero is a confused, frightened boy seeking nothing more than a safe place to lay his head, having to face up to the realities of a big bad world seemingly against him. Instead he is characterised, in turn, as a naughty schoolboy, circus freak, artful dodger and a sub-human monster, terrorising the metropolis at large. For a show carrying an age recommendation of 7+, there are some real meaty issues here, coupled with tangible threat and dark forces. CITV this ain’t.

For this of course, Pullman and Teresa Ludovico (who adapted and directed) are to be applauded; kids aren’t stupid and don’t need to be spoken down to. Clearly recognising this, Ludovico said: “Every fairy tale presents a simple narrative and the right amount of light and shade, to enable the child to identify with the hero of the story and allow them to go on the same journey of initiation.”

Relatively simple the narrative may be, but this is something of an intricate production. Featuring a company of eight playing a cast of characters numbering more than 20 – a family of rats are particularly ingeniously realised – with a mixture of live and recorded music and a very healthy dollop of physicality (Fox Jackson-Keen as Roger, in particular), I Was A Rat! is a joy to behold.

Drawing on comedic traditions ranging from the Goon Show and Monty Python, right up to the League of Gentlemen (look out especially for Mr and Mrs Tapsrews macabre collection of circus freaks), this is not a play short on belly laughs (most of which come from the adults in the audience truth be told!); sequences involving the officious but inept police spring immediately to mind, leaving a guy in our row roaring hyena-like. In fact, this is a show remarkably hard to fault, so much so, we’re descending into gushing territory.

The story (with its expertly measured content appealing to child and adult alike), cast and direction are nigh on perfect, while costume and set design are similarly impressive. There’s even room for a neat twist in the denouement when we finally discover the origins of Roger’s strange story and that footman’s uniform (which we shan’t spoil here). Put simply, if you’re after a family night out full of wonder and subtly told life-lessons, it would be remiss of us to recommend anything above I Was A Rat!

I Was A Rat! continues @ the Playhouse until Saturday 23rd March

Posted on 20/03/2013 by thedoublenegative