Based on Philip Pullman’s book of the same title, I Was a Rat follows the misadventures of Roger, a rat-turned-boy who turns up on the doorstep of an old couple one rainy night. The couple take the wild child everywhere from the police, to the doctors, and to the ‘philosopher general’, trying to figure out what they’re going to do with him. Eventually they become separated, and Roger enters a nightmarish and surreal world of thieves and clowns.
Tersa Ludovico has differed from the usual approach of adapting books to the stage for I Was a Rat. The basic story unfolds in much the same way, but it is not the focus. Partly, perhaps, because it is aimed at a younger audience, it feels as though less attention was given to dialogue and emotional engagement (when Roger is sad, lost and lonely, for example, he simply cries alone in a corner, which rather jars with the usual frenetic and acrobatic mode of the play.) What it lacks in empathy however, it makes up for in spectacle.
At first the play just seems like a fairly standard fairy-tale, everyone is in Dickensian rags, and there is a small boy trying to find his way home. As soon as we begin to encounter the other people in this world though, we see that the rat is the most human character in it. Everyone has wildly colourful costumes, and pantomime noses. The deeper we go into the city, the darker and weirder things get. The wife of the circus master has a gigantic circus tent for a dress, and is surrounded by nightmarish clowns that look almost like painted scarecrows. Cellos, violins and accordions find their way on stage, and are played live, sometimes simply to provide atmosphere, and other times simply as part of a character’s eccentricity (the philosopher general stands on a chair playing the cello while performing a psycho-analysis of Roger.)
There are some wonderful physical performances here – be it the general hidden mastery behind the slapstick, or a genuinely impressive piece of solo acrobatics. Combined with the garish costumes, reedy string music and an overall intense weirdness, at certain points you have to ask yourself whether you’re watching a play or a fever dream.
The set was extremely basic – a giant chair would occasionally be wheeled on, but apart from that, the setting was established entirely through the main lighting, and a set of lights at the back of the stage. Combined with careful amounts of smoke, colour and shadows, a whole city unfolded on stage, from parliament to the circus, and the sewers to the police station.
I Was a Rat is a highly creative treatment of a well-loved children’s author’s work, that really captures the (often forgotten) darkness of fairy tales.
I Was a Rat is at the Nottingham Playhouse theatre until 13 April. For more information go to http://www.nottinghamplayhouse.co.uk/