Billed as a show for all ages, Birmingham Rep’s I Was A Rat! is adapted from Philip Pullman’s 1999 novel of the same name. Adapted and directed by Teresa Ludovico of Italy’s Teatro Kismet, this is a show that understands, and delivers, the magic and thrill of great storytelling.
On a cold night, a scruffy boy only able to say “I was a rat” turns up on the doorstep of a cobbler and his wife. They name him Roger and go to various Government bodies in an attempt to find out where he came from. Roger gets lost and becomes increasingly outcast, being forced onstage as a ‘rat-boy’ as part of a circus, hunted by the police after being reported as a vicious mutant by a sensationalist press and ultimately put on trial by a severe court.
Of course, there is a happy ending to follow the darkness and it is true that the show’s heart lies in its sweet, trusting protagonist (played by an endearing Fox Jackson-Keen) and the generosity and love of a couple who choose to have faith in him (Lorna Gayle and Tyrone Huggins). However, the piece has a satirical, subversive and occasionally sinister edge which keeps it from teetering over the edge into the usual family-friendly fodder. There’s a spectacularly grotesque circus scene that will send chills down the spine of any vertebrate and a familiar tabloid-esque press obsessed with scandal and royal weddings.
The ensemble performances are a joy. Five cast members play a myriad of distinctive characters with delight using live music, accents, silly voices and an impressive number of changes to Luigi Spezzacente’s brilliant costumes. Vincent Longuemare’s ‘lightset’ completes the visual feast, whilst Frank Moon’s gypsy-influenced score echoes the idea of roots as Roger searches for his place in the world.
I Was a Rat is a satisfying piece of theatre that considers human nature and its best and worst extremes. A rare occasion that the tag ‘for all the family’ might be right.