I Was a Rat – Review – Leeds City Varieties

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I Was a Rat – Review

Leeds City Varieties, May 2013

by Sandra Callard

The title of the play does not enamour me. But it is, nevertheless, an adaptation of a 1999 children’s book by Philip Pullman. Albeit lesser known than his magnificent His Dark Materials. Plus, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, now in its 100th year, perform it. So it promises much.

i was a rat leedsAnd, oh my goodness, it certainly delivers! From the very beginning it is clear that here is something very different. It is the fable of a boy who turns up one night on the doorstep of a childless middle-aged couple, Bob and Joan. Both roles beautifully played by Tyrone Huggins and Lorna Gayle. He tells them, cheerfully and matter-of-factly, that he is a rat. The question is, what is he now? In spite of this, they take him in and decide to call him Roger. Roger likes to eat wood and paper, but he has an innate sweetness and charm about him. Bob and Joan soon give him love and hope for the future.

“An air of fantasy and mystery”

They approach various agencies for help. City hall, education, the police and journalism in the guise of the Daily Scourge are satirised. They all refuse to try to understand his claims, and admit to hidden agendas. Roger is cruelly treated by Mr and Mrs Tapscrew (played terrifyingly by Christopher Dingli and Dodger Phillips). They kidnap him to be shown as the freak ‘Rat Boy’ in his circus. It’s true that this is a particularly dark piece, more suitable to adults than children. The costumes and masks here are fantastic, and a little frightening.

Directed by Teresa Ludovico, she brings a touch of Italian Renaissance players, Punch and Judy or Pierrot and Columbine to the play. Not unexpected as she is artistic director of Teatro Kismet in Bari, Southern Italy. There is an air of fantasy and mystery. Masks, false noses and grotesques abound. Five actors do a brilliant job of portraying the differing authority figures who cannot accept Roger. The masks and false body additions make it possible for them to play multiple parts. There are practically no props or scenery, the action being created by lighting and costume. This works magnificently.

“Spans the ages”

i was a rat reviewThe part of the eponymous rat, Roger, is explosively played by seventeen-year-old Fox Jackson-Keen. He manages to convey his rat-like tendencies of chewing wood and paper, whilst still showing his innate humanity. Jackson-Keen played Billy Elliot for two years, and his dancing skills are clearly shown in the amount of physicality needed to cope with this part. His Russian dance in the circus is astounding. The production is almost ballet-like at times, exhibiting beauty, strength and sometimes great fun.

Ostensibly a children’s story, I Was a Rat spans the ages effortlessly. It produces satire, fantasy, terror, joy and love. Pullman’s gripping story is brought to life magnificently by cast of Birmingham Rep. It is a triumph and a joy for children and adults alike.

pictures: Robert Day

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