Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Review: I Was A Rat! at Nottingham Playhouse

This fabulous stage adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s very popular book, I Was a Rat! has arrived for the first time in the UK via the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company, in association with Nottingham Playhouse, Ipswich New Wolsey Theatre and Teatro Kismet, Bari (Italy). It is adapted and directed by Teresa Ludovico with an English text version by David Watson.

Ludovico is the artistic director of Teatro Kismet in Bari, southern Italy and is best known in the UK for her thrilling and physical productions of Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen and The Mermaid Princess. Watson joined the Birmingham Rep's scheme for young writers in 1999 and has gone on to write twelve plays including I Was a Rat!

Author, Philip Pullman’s glorious and gripping story, of a boy called Roger who fervently believes he was a rat, is brought to life on the Nottingham Playhouse stage until 13th April 2013. It combines humour, fantasy, and a stunningly theatrical adventure and this moving and darkly comic tale slowly reveals its roots to a well loved fairy tale.

As the play unfolds, a scruffy young boy knocks on the door of an elderly London couple – Bob and Joan. They were unable to have a child of their own and take the boy in, feed him and give him a name. The lad claims, over and over, that he was a rat and is puzzled to be in an alien world full of human beings. The strange, but instantly likeable lad, begins to act just like the creature he claims he was by playfully rolling around and gnawing on anything he can find, including pencils. Bob and Joan, lovingly played by Tyrone Huggins and Lorna Gayle, try to teach him some manners but are unsure what to do with him for the best. They decide to venture out with Roger to the authorities for them to sort the matter out. Unfortunately, they have no luck finding a home through these channels as neither the police, the school or the town hall clerks will do anything to help. The rat boy is very much an innocent in an unfamiliar world.

Roger instinctively runs away from a thrashing on two or three occasions and, once out of the protection offered by Bob and Joan, Roger is exploited and abused by all and sundry including The Philosopher Royal and the owners of a very scary Commedia del arte style circus and even a bunch of urchins that act like Fagin's gang. He is treated as a freak yet desperately tries to see the best in all his tormentors. In his despair he ends up imprisoned and sentenced to 'stermination. Will Bob and Joan rescue him? Will the lovable Roger ever find happiness again?

As in the style of Italian Commedia del arte, the Playhouse stage is mainly bare. Through a combination of thrilling lighting effects, theatrics, mime and dance and the tremendously talented cast, whose witty physicality and engaging fluidity allow the story to unfold, each moment becomes a truly magical piece of theatre. There is a feeling of improvisation bursting from the performers but the show is magnificently rehearsed to the point where the actors are very confident and professional in their story telling expertise and appear to be 'playing' with the piece. The audience loved each new event and the style of presentation.

The outlandishly fabulous costumes and live music give the piece a historical context and a nightmarish sense of the absurd, ranging from the bizarre and silly, tall hatted, policemen to the garish tormenting clowns of the circus and the eerie beaked politicians and macabre, Judge and Jury. All was beautifully and energetically choreographed and each episode of the story of the rat boy carried the spectacle along in and easy to follow but, often unpredictable way.

Various props were used including regular usage of a very tall chair that allows the performers not only to make terrific use of the stage area but also, to give an advantage of loftiness or power to particular characters as Roger encounters them. The various fight scenes were spectacularly done as were the energetic dance sequences performed by Fox Jackson-Keen, as Roger. He is a fine actor and dancer and has previously played the lead in the West End Musical, Billy Elliot and Roger in the Birmingham Rep production.

The story's local newspaper, the Daily Scourge, was a common theme throughout with the news hounds vocally 'hounding' the 'Monster Rat in the Sewer' and exploiting every possible angle to sell the papers through scandal and sleaze. The scene in the sewers with the scared police officer seeking out 'the monster' was priceless, at once dark and scary and then comical as the two meet head to head.

There are some stunning quick changes from the main cast of eight to the point that the audience didn't even realise that certain actors were playing two or three characters in one scene. All of the multi-talented cast were superb, including the Playhouse youth group as the urchins.

The posters for the show recommend the minimum age of audience to be seven plus. It is an intelligent show for all the family but not for the tiny tots. This is one of those funny and intelligent shows you would happily go and repeatedly see in order to catch all the theatricality again and again.

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