Yesterday myself and two colleagues took the afternoon to travel up and catch the touring production of I Was A Rat! which is due to come to The Courtyard at the end of May. The show is an adaptation from the Philip Pullman novel, directed and adapted by Teresa Ludovico in association with Teatro Kismet. We arrived at the Birmingham Old Repertory Theatre around lunchtime, and had a quick chance to talk with representatives from other venues on the tour circuit, before taking our seats in the auditorium.
Philip Pullman’s ‘I Was A Rat’.
At first I was surprised by what lay out on the stage before me. Sat in an opulent old theatre house with plush red seats and ornate high ceilings, I was looking at a bare black box, with some stark white light flashing intermittently. The surroundings of the auditorium quite obviously contrasted to the clinical and daring nature of the open stage. Yet this bare, limited, set-less lay-out was soon of no importance to me, as I soon got captured by the unique production.
The story started with old married couple Bob and Joan, (played by Tyrone Huggins and Lorna Gayle respectively), whose monotonous evening events are interrupted by an unfashionably late and hurried knock on the door. Enter a small boy, who looks at the couples confused faces and exclaims “I was a rat!” Unsure of who this boy is, where he has come from, and why he only repeats this phrase, Bob and Joan take him in for the night, and poignantly name him Roger, an action that allows us to encroach on the private and sensitive subjects that have also structured these two characters and the way they live their life.
Roger, played by Fox Jackson-Keen, slowly begins to familiarise himself with living amongst the human race, despite knowing that he really was once a rat. However, he quite often comes into difficulty, as when he visits the doctor, he has trouble with simple Maths, and when he goes to City Hall and School he finds pencils (and his teacher’s finger) too irresistible to nibble at! Jackson-Keen played the part of young Roger magnificently, and displayed immensely impressive physicality that really captured a nervous and twitchy disposition that you would imagine a reincarnated rat to have.
Fox Jackson – Keen, as Roger
The show’s director, Teresa Ludovico says “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.” This journey is one that certainly brings ups and downs, and conflicts moments of pure belonging and bliss for Roger with dark periods of exploitation and uneasiness. For example, his capture at Mr Tapscrew’s circus, although visually rich and narratively nightmarish, you are able to see how his unfortunate transformation from animal to man is one that has led him to become the object of ridicule.
Jackson-Keen as Roger is also surrounded by an all male cast of 5 brilliant actors and musicians. The actors doubled up as police dogs, schools mistresses and young tykes brilliantly, using their bodies and only a high chair to encapsulate this fantastical world. Special mention must go to their efficient adaptability, and use of theatrical components along with their own bodies to change the pace and flow of the piece. These capable actors’ also portrayed moments of satire and dark humour in the play as they mock the tabloid press as “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”, bouncing ridiculous ideas off each other and spinning stories on society’s obsession with cultural figures. They also drew laughs from displaying the perceived corruption of capitalist politicians, meaning the grown-ups had something to amuse themselves as much as children were wowed by Roger’s acrobatic ability.
The Tapscrew Circus
The fairytale element of the story was further explored through the beautiful use of puppetry used to portray Princess Aurelia, or ‘Mary Jane’ as Roger knows her, who is the catalyst for his acceptance into the human realm, and helps free him from cruel captivity and leads him back to his adopted parents Bob and Joan.
The use of live music played by the community cast on stage was brilliant, and had you singing little ditties all the way home! And special mention must also go to the fantastic costumes that made you really feel like this story had been lifted off the page and put in front of you. The cast were incredible and the script carefully dealt with themes of acceptance, belonging and love in a way that could be understood by children and adults alike. I really recommend all families to catch this over their Spring half term.
I will conclude with more words from the show’s director, Teresa Ludovico. “Great stories, and I include fairy tales in this category, are layered like rocky soil. To know them in depth, you have to be willing to dig them up, to penetrate them.”
Philip Pullman’s I Was A Rat comes to the Courtyard on Thursday 30 May until Saturday 1 June with performances at 7pm, and a 2pm matinee on the Saturday.
Some reviews to the show can be read here:-