Writer: Philip Pullman, adapted by Teresa Ludovico, English version by David Watson
Director: Teresa Ludovico
Composer: Frank Moon
Reviewer: James Garrington
The work of author Philip Pullman was last seen at the Rep in 2009 when an adaptation of his well-known and loved His Dark Materials trilogy was performed in two parts, to somewhat mixed reviews. What then will the audience make of I was a Rat!, which is based on a less well-known book? In short, this world premiere production is stunning. In sharp contrast to the previous Pullman adaptation, this is a coherent and accessible piece of work.
From the moment the curtain rises it is clear that this is going to be something different. The audience is presented with nothing more than a black box, punctuated by a handful of spotlights and lines of light on the floor. This dependence on lighting to put each scene into context is a theme that continues throughout the piece, and designer Vincent Longuemare has done a fantastic job of creating a very atmospheric production, at times claustrophobic, almost reminiscent of prison bars, but by the addition of a few sunflowers and changed lighting, giving a feeling of joy at the climax of the play. This stylized nature is reflected in all aspects of the production. The costumes by Luigi Spezzacente are bright, caricatured and often have added masks that are almost Commedia dell’Arte in nature, enabling the tiny adult cast to play a multitude of rôles; and the few pieces of scenery and props that are used are often representative rather than literal.
This is a play that operates at very many different levels. Buried in a story reminiscent of fairy tales like Pinocchio, are a number of deeper themes; we are asked to reflect on topics such as press intrusion and accuracy, the nature of celebrity, xenophobia and even topical references to arts funding cuts and horsemeat. As a result it is inevitable that some of the themes and language will be far too sophisticated for the younger viewer, yet they will appreciate the fairy tale references, and some of the very physical humour than occurs throughout. Full marks too to director Teresa Ludovico on the fine quality of the adaptation, given an English translation by local writer David Watson, which manages to transfer the story from the book to the stage very successfully, and in a way that retains that essential element of coherent story-telling which is so important for younger audience members.
Above all, though, this is a version of a fairy story, and one that is done brilliantly well. Taking centre stage is seventeen year-old Fox Jackson-Keen, in the part of the eponymous rat. The level of physicality that this young man brings to his performance is nothing short of outstanding. Previously best known as a dancer (he played Billy Elliot for two years) he brings every ounce of his dance experience to this part, and he looks set to have a very successful career ahead of him. Not that the remainder of the cast are left behind in the physicality stakes; Ludovico has worked with movement director Yann Seabra, himself a former dancer, to create a production that is almost balletic at times, where much of the movement is highly choreographed and tightly performed by this well-drilled company. A huge amount of work has also clearly gone into studying and rehearsing animal movements, and the three rats tumbling over themselves are a joy to see.
This year Birmingham Rep celebrates its centenary, and if this production is anything to go by, they are going to have a fantastic year. Yet another outstanding production for the Rep.
Runs until 2nd March 2013
Picture: Robert Day