Rats make it a birthday party

 Roll-up, Roll-up and see the rat boy: Dodger Phillips and Christopher Dingli as the freak show owners Mr and Mrs Tapscrew. Pictures: Robert Day

I was a Rat

Birmingham Rep

The Old Rep, Birmingham

*****

BIRMINGHAM Rep showed it is still young at heart as it opened its 100th birthday celebrations with the world premiere stage adaptation of Philip Pullman's children's story I Was a Rat.

The Rep has built up a reputation for pushing the boundaries with works that are challenging, innovative and, let's be honest here, sometimes a bit on the weird side, and this production adapted and directed by Teresa Ludovico manages all three and more.

Some of the costumes look as if they have come straight from a Haitian voodoo festival with bizarre clown masks and huge hooked beaks of noses, not that reality is going to be challenged that much by costumes in a story of a rat turned into a boy. The story, costumes and the adaptation are all about imagination, theatre of the mind.

We have rats bounding about the stage with twin miner's lamps for eyes, policemen who make the Keystone Cops look efficient, journalists who tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth and a judicial system as flexible as granite.

Sadly the journalists of the Daily Scourge with their lust for sensationalism and wild speculation are closer than many might imagine to the ways of Fleet Street and its circulation wars although it is difficult to imagine what gave Ludovico the idea for a Government which sees the solution to any problem being to set up a long-running inquiry under a high court judge – whoever heard of such a thing! We need to call for a judge-led inquiry to look into it.

We all know these days to actors are expected to be able to sing, dance and play an instrument, preferably more than one but I was a Rat adds an extra dimension - a requirement for gymnastics and circus acrobatics and quick change.

Fox Jackson-Keen, who has played Billy Elliot in the West End is simply superb as the rat-boy Roger and one long routine during his time in a freak show, full of somersaults, back flips and cartwheels was exhausting just to watch.

His adopted parents – he adopted them – cobbler Bob and his wife Joan, are beautifully played by Tyrone Huggins and Lorna Gayle as the only normal people in the entire production.

Theirs is a quiet, gentle love story of more than 30 years of childless marriage when along comes the rat boy they name Roger, the name of the child they never had and who they are prepared to battle for and protect as their own.

Fox Jackson-Keen give a wonderful performance as Roger the boy who used to be a rat

Bob, Joan and Roger  are the people you start to care about in their bizarre world.

As for the rest? Come the curtain call you look around the sparse numbers beyond the Young Rep rats, who provide pickpocket youngsters in the freak show, and wonder if most of the cast have decided ‘sod this for a game of soldiers', and decamped to the pub, until you look again at the programme and see Christopher Dingli has six parts, Jack Jones and Dodger Phillips five apiece and TJ Holmes and Joey Hickman four each. Even Bob, Joan and Roger have to double up to help out

Thus we have a whole principality of characters such as a philosopher royal, a doctor with more problems than his patients and a school which is an education for all who see it. There is a freak show run by Mr and Mrs Tapscrew, Christopher Dingli and Dodger Phillips, where the star attraction of the rat boy is the only one not a freak.

Then there is the palace guard of TJ Holmes and Dingli again who have one of the funniest moments of the show with the changing of the guard represented by the ceremonial stick.

But this is a play with plenty of humour and even some topical references to horsemeat thrown in by Jack Jones as Mrs Cribbins who shows the modern need for versatility having trained with the Royal Ballet School, danced in Portugal and toured with Matthew Bourne's New Adventures.

There are some clever touches such as the Princess being represented by a minimalist puppet of a head, two hands and two feet, which is strangely effective.

Scenery is a couple of chairs, a giant chair to indicate power, and pomposity, which doubles as a prison and a few bundles of newspapers which introduces another star, Frenchman Vincent Longuemare who lit the production beautifully to create another world in the darkness with piercing pencil spots, geometric lines to give us walls and barriers of light and  individual scenes being plucked out from the blackness. Some of the backlighting in stark black and white is particularly effective.

Credit too for costume designer Luigi Spezzacente from Bari in Italy – Ludovico is artistic director of Teatro Kismet in Bari – with costumes which are surreal to English audiences but which all add to the fantasy of the tale.

Detracting from the fantasy though was Bob reading from a newspaper, supposedly the scurrolous Daily Scourge, that was clearly a copy of Metro. Surely in these days of cheap A3 printers and word processing it is not beyond the wit of man to mock up a Daily Scourge front page?

I was a Rat is a children's book and this is a family friendly show, although young childen might be a little disturbed by some of the characters even though the dark side is kept to merely a hint of grey. Think Matilda or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

If children are old enough for the story they will love this play with its larger than life characters and out and out silliness from squabbling rats to a 6ft police dog. For adults it is a delight verging on theatre of the absurd. It is fun, innovative and creative theatre worthy of heralding in the next Rep century. To 02-03-13 

Roger Clarke

Approx 1 hour 40 minutes plus a 20 minute interval.

The play is produced in association with Nottingham Playhouse, The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich and Teatro Kismet and the English version is by David Watson. 

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