I Am A Rat!

A Phillip Pullman novel about a pageboy’s exploitation has been given the stage treatment with an Italian twist. By Richard Smirke

Hero image

First published in 1999, Philip Pullman’s hugely popular children’s novel I Was A Rat! has quickly become a contemporary classic, with its echoes of Oliver Twist and darkly comic satirical themes proving as compelling to adult readers as their offspring.

The moving story of a scruffy pageboy who turns up on the doorstep of old married couple Bob and Joan one evening and truthfully declares “I was a rat”, Pullman’s beautifully crafted Dickensian fairytale combines humour, fantasy and adventure with a merciless send-up of a cruel and hypocritical tabloid press, as characterised by fictitious local newspaper The Daily Scourge. Now the book has been turned into a stage play, directed by Teresa Ludovico, who runs Italy’s Teatro Kismet theatre company and has won acclaim for her colourful adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen and The Mermaid Princess.

“I’m very excited by the idea of this particular production,” says Pullman, anticipating “a show that the whole family will enjoy”. The Norwich-born writer, best known for the award-winning His Dark Materials trilogy, is keen to stress that cross-generational appeal is not achieved by “some clever wordplay for the grown-ups and a bit of silly slapstick for the children”, however. “I mean everybody enjoying the same things at the same time and I think the way to do that is to put people with whom we sympathise deeply into situations that are difficult or painful or dangerous or exciting or funny. Then you hope that everybody will respond in the same way.”

“There are lots of different layers in this story, but for me the main point of the show is accepting who you are,” elaborates Fox Jackson-Keen, who plays Roger, the titular hero of the play. “It’s a fairy story and, like all great fairy stories, it has its ups and downs and you’ll laugh and you’ll cry.”

For Jackson-Keen – a former champion gymnast and star of West End musical Billy Elliot – one of the most testing scenes arrives halfway through the show when Roger breaks down following his demonisation and mistreatment at the hands of the principal villain, the wonderfully named Mr Tapscrew, who aims to exploit him as a fairground freak. “It’s quite a burden to play that scene,” explains the 17-year-old actor. “He’s very upset and doesn’t know who to turn to or how to understand what’s going on. You want to make it as real as you possibly can so that people understand that he doesn’t want to be in the world anymore. He wants to kill himself. It’s a difficult piece to do, but Teresa has guided me all the way and I think I’ve got it down.”

Critics agree, praising Jackson-Keen’s central performance and the production – which premiered at Birmingham Old Rep (joint producers of the play) earlier this year – for its vivid design, stirring klezmer music score (composed by Frank Moon) and sheer acrobatic exuberance. In keeping with its director’s Teatro Kismet background, the style of I Am A Rat! follows the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte: a highly physical form of theatre characterised by stock characters (in this case, policemen, judges, journalists and teachers) and the wearing of facial masks and ludicrous false noses.

Not that you necessarily need to be aware of commedia dell’arte to enjoy the play, says its young star, pleased with the positive reactions of audiences young and old to the tour so far. “It’s a children’s book but adults love the show equally as much. I like the idea of audiences going away after, lying in bed and thinking about it at night. To have an impact on somebody’s life, even for a second, or just to make them smile, is a great joy.”

I Am A Rat! is at Liverpool Playhouse, 19-23 March, Lowry Theatre, Salford, 7-11 May, and City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds, 22-25 May

Interact: Responses to Preview:
I Am A Rat!

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.