Chris Eldon Lee reviews the UK stage premiere of Philip Pullman’s I Was A Rat which is at Birmingham Old Rep until March 2nd and at Salford’s Lowry and Hereford’s Courtyard Theatre in May.
There are some moving and beautiful moments in this refreshingly clever production.
Teresa Ludovico, artistic director of Bari’s Teatro Kismet in Southern Italy, brings to Brum a show that draws deeply on the magic of European black box theatre to tell a story that settles somewhere in the mythological land between traditional fairytale and wacky panto. For example, there’s a startlingly white and gracious puppet princess who wafts pink petals whenever she says goodbye. But she’s hopelessly protected by a gang of idiotic cartoon policemen who could easily have been drawn by Spike Milligan.
There is a strong sense of destiny in this story. Roger becomes the centre of a classic parable about how an outsider should be accepted by society at large – much to the delight of his adopting Caribbean parents who led such boring lives until his knock on their door gives them purpose.
Lorna Gayle and Tyrone Huggins are the still centre of a production that thrives on odd departures and crazy continuities. In the most beautiful moment they sing and dance a gentle samba whilst ensemble members delicately shower them with white paper snowflakes, sent swirling in the black air by a man with a fan. The stage effects are generally done before our eyes – there’s so much invention here there’s no need to hide the mechanics, or indeed the slightly tricky moment when Huggins had to stop to clear his mouth of the overzealous blizzard.
Roger (the rat) is charmingly played in a conversely straightforward style by Fox Jackson-Keen, who in the demanding dance scenes makes the most of the experience he’s recently gained playing Billy Elliot in London. He’s cherubic and likeable and when he claims he once had a lovely tail you’re inclined to give him the benefit of doubt.
An ensemble of five clowns plays everybody else, including white beaked parliamentarians who assume that demanding yet another public enquiry is all they ever need to do; and the gutter press for whom a possible sewer rat is an uncomfortably close neighbour. The media is mercilessly lampooned in its quest for the facts (of which there are precious few in mythology). “The truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth”, they cry. “This is the newspaper that illuminates – especially when it’s set on fire.”
And then they join the rest of the cast, grabbing instruments to blend in with The Destroyers joyfully entertaining Klezmer music that underscores the show.
Satire is rarely polished to perfection and the first half feels fragmented by the sort of loose cues and awkward junctions you associate with amateur dramatics. The audience wasn’t always sure about laughing and we seemed to fall behind the action a bit. A British director might have fetched a screwdriver to tighten it all up.
But as time passed I grew to appreciate Ludovico’s relaxed approach to the pottiness of it all. If you’re going to tell a topical tale with little regard for authority, you really don’t want to conform to the dictates of slickness. And if she wants to throw in a horsemeat joke I’ve not heard before, all the better.
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