sat 30/08/2014

Rats' Tales, Royal Exchange, Manchester | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Rats' Tales, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Carol Ann Duffy's children's stories and other dark fairy tales make festive fare

Michael Mears' Pied Piper summons his rodent ragamuffinsJonathan Keenan

Having 30 “rats” running around hardly seems the stuff of festive fare, but since the begetter of the show is Carol Ann Duffy, known in her children’s writing for dark fairy tales, we might expect something different. And, after all, these rodents are actually local children dressed as ragamuffins. Rats, it seems, can be cute and not necessarily baddies – and, in any case, the Pied Piper is at hand.

This is the world premiere of an imaginative entertainment concocted by director Melly Still and our Poet Laureate, inspired by the latter’s three stories in The Stolen Childhood, but taking in five more fairy tales from around the world. Anyone who has read the Duffy collection will be prepared for unkind stepfathers and stepmothers, stressful childhoods, young and old people changing personalities, parental bereavement, but generally happy endings.

It involves a versatile and energetic cast of eight, who do all the straightforward storytelling and play all the characters, children and adults – and animals. Melly Still has them performing on a bare stage, with a minimum of props and costumes, in effective well-choreographed workshop style. In short, it’s a production to tease the imagination, the stories illustrated by a sort of play-acting.

It kicks off with a fairly straightforward take on the old Ratcatcher, where the community, led by a duplicitous politician (giving rise to some contemporary digs), rat on the piper (Michael Mears, pictured below), causing him to whisk the children away. The last version of this tale I saw was the nightmarish but spine-tingling take on the story by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp in the acclaimed one-act opera Into the Little Hill. There the Piper rids an ungrateful community of the rats, but takes the children off into a “little hill”.

Naturally, this show, which aims “to get to the heart of childhood to celebrate the spirit of the festive season”, isn’t quite that penetrative, but it does raise the question of who it is meant to entertain. It doesn’t have the overall enchantment of a children’s show. Nor does it have the force of an adult entertainment. So, I’m unsure who it might appeal to. But it has its moments.

The eight stories are played out one after the other, without links (or applause). There is a lot of darkness, such as a scary troll boy who will only eat rats, but the story that has real charm is Duffy’s “A Little Girl”. In moving from childhood to adulthood, a repeated theme, she outgrows the doll’s house that was her home.

The story that brought the house down and drew spontaneous applause was “The Squire’s Bride”, a panto-like sketch featuring a bloated squire (the excellent Dan Milne), who is duped into facing a horse for a bride rather than the local beauty he expected. Emily Wachter and Meline Danielewicz bring the house down as the capering horse – without the usual panto-horse dressing.

The Royal Exchange is renowned for providing alternative Christmas fare, whilst all around do the pantos (Peter Pan the favourite this year), usually some sumptuously dressed period piece or a Marx Bros-style zany comedy, so this is quite a departure. But the theatre has a close relationship with the Poet Laureate, who lives in Manchester. Indeed, running alongside Rats’ Tales in the main theatre will be Duffy’s The Tear Thief in the studio, a puppet show for younger children in which the thief steals the tears from children who cry between supper and bedtime. That’s Duffy for you.

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