PHILIP PULLMAN’S tale of the little boy in a footman’s uniform, who turns up on the doorstep of a shoemaker and his washerwoman wife with no memory except that he used to be a rat, is a perfectly composed children’s story.
So what is to be gained by rewriting it for the stage?
Italian playwright Teresa Ludovico’s version of this alternative Cinderella story, translated back into English by David Watson for this Birmingham Repertory touring show, is a masterclass in adaptation.
All of the magic, inventiveness and comedy of Pullman’s book are there, made physical through dance, clowning, puppetry and plain old acting, even if some of the detail has to be left out.
Children are still encouraged to use their imaginations, as they would when reading, by the use of a spartan black set and some simple yet clever touches such as a handheld fan and a bucketful of white paper confetti creating a billowing snowstorm.
It is at once traditional and modern as the story mixes well-told fairytale motifs and contemporary references such as digs at the tabloid press and horse burgers.
A multi-skilled cast leads the audience through the lost boy’s adventures, from the moment his newfound parents name him Roger after the son they never had to finding himself on trial as a terrifying rat-boy monster.
Under Ludovico’s direction and dressed in Luigi Spezzacatene’s spectacular costumes, they resemble book illustrations brought to life. A small team play some 30 roles between them including a cabinet of menacing vulture-beaked politicians, barmy newspapermen, ridiculous police officers and lamp-eyed rats – that are fortunately all more Brothers Grimm than Disney.
And they embellish Frank Moon’s pre-recorded Eastern European-style soundtrack by playing instruments live on stage.
Lorna Gayle and Tyrone Huggins make a thoroughly lovable couple as Joan and Bob, who are determined to bring Roger home safely.
Fox Jackson-Keen’s boundless energy, wide-eyed innocence and just a touch of rodenty mischievousness, meanwhile, make it very easy to believe he is a three-week-old rat transformed into a little boy.
This may be a show written for children but there is plenty for the whole family to relish.