Writer: Carol Ann Duffy
Adaptor/Director: Melly Still
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
The Royal Exchange has an enviable reputation for providing quirky festive entertainment that comes as a blessed relief after the bland fare we usually get at this time of year. But you can’t help feel they might have pushed their luck with ‘Rats’ Tales’. After all, some people actually have a phobia about the damn creatures!
Actually the rodents feature in less than half of the stories that make up the show based on the writings of poet Carol Ann Duffy. Director and dramaturg Melly Still has a real understanding of not only the material but also of childhood. The show is staged as if the audience is watching children at play; conjuring up characters and places from their imagination using objects that are just lying around.
The style of the play is set with the opening tale of the Pied Piper, which combines humour, albeit of a dark variety, with a growing chill. Michael Mear’s version of the Piper, dressed in dark leather rather than the piebald garments of legend, is like a sinister gunslinger. The loose theme of the first Act, the loss of children or of childhood innocence, continues with a wonderfully scary tale of a woman getting what she wants and living to regret the bargain. ‘A Little Girl’, on the other hand is a gentle tale of ageing and features a stunningly effective entrance by Meline Danielewicz as the girl who literally out-grows her dolls house. A tale of enduring loss while retaining humanity, that concludes the first Act, is made all the more powerful by the heartfelt performances of Jack Tarlton and Emily Wachter. Hiran Abeysekera’s cackling goblin child is a favourite of the younger audience members.
Act two is more relaxed. After a moving tale of the beneficial effects of maturing Duffy and Still seem to realise that this is, after all, a celebratory Christmas show and offer a pair of gloriously eccentric and funny tales. A variation on Cinderella has surprisingly irreverent dialogue (‘Everyone in the castle thought he was bonkers’) and features hilarious mimes by the ensemble as geese. A twisted tale of courtship leads to a superb punchline and gives Still and her cast the chance to indulge in a bit of slapstick. A final story manages to forge links between the individual tales and even provide a happy ending featuring a rat as a hero.
Anna Fleischle’s set is part of the less-is-more approach. A bare wood stage is adapted by moving the odd plank here and there to provide a water-filled well. The cast, as children would, just use a doll when a story requires a character to swim across a river. Banks of televisions are utilized for stories that involve travel or witchcraft. The parents of Hamelin watch the screens helplessly as the Pied Piper loads their children onto buses parked outside the theatre.
Excellent use if made of local children who, to the backing of Rosemary Toll’s thunderous percussion, scurry around the auditorium and stage whispering the nasty attributes of rats and set an uneasy mood for what is to come. Their hooded costumes are a disturbing reminder that urban cities have other perils just as unattractive as rats.
‘Rats’ Tales’ is unlikely to result in a revision to the reputation of the rodents but like the best festive treats is capable of producing a sense of melancholy as well as laughter.