The Royal Exchange’s alternative festive offering to the traditional Christmas panto sees them join forces with the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy for a dramatisation of eight fairy tales: one traditional (The Pied Piper of Hamelin), the rest created by Duffy.
Rats’ Tales reunites Duffy with director Melly Still, with whom she previously collaborated with on the magical Beasts and Beauties. There are echoes of the Brothers Grimm running through the production. All the best fairy tales have a dark edge to them, and the stories here are blacker than a moonless night: a mother, so jealous of her daughter’s youth that she steals her shadow, a King is forced to marry his own daughter, a boy gradually becomes invisible after his widowed mother remarries.
The eight stories though unconnected all share common themes (and they are all beautifully called back to in the final section). An ensemble of eight is joined on stage by a live band, a troupe of Manchester schoolchildren and some puppets; the main players are excellent throughout, effortlessly switching from character to character. Hiran Abeysekera is a rat-eating troll baby one minute, and a handsome prince the next, while Meline Danielewicz displays a great gift for mime in The Little Girl.
The opening Pied Piper story puts a new spin on a familiar tale, featuring a duplicitous politician fond of phrases like “big society” and “we’re all in this together”, and a Piper, played by Michael Mears who’s more rock star than child catcher.
The remaining seven stories are all original works, though they draw on folk tales from around the world. Some of these are pretty horrific –The Changeling shows a troll stealing a child and leaving her own baby with local villagers to be beaten and mistreated – while others are more broadly comic, such as the uproarious The Squire’s Bride (which even features a pantomime horse, of sorts). The highlight though is the magical A Little Girl, which tells the story of a doll who suddenly starts to grow and come to life. The tale evokes fears of ageing and the loss of childhood, and is incredibly poignant in its staging.
Still’s production is magical throughout. The level of imagination on display is impressive, with large strips of cloths cascading down from the ceiling, turning the Royal Exchange into a mystical forest, and clever deployment of TV monitors. It’s the sort of staging that can pique the imagination of young children and hopefully spark a lifelong love of theatre.
While Rats’ Tales may be dark, and gruesome at times, it’s unlikely to really terrify any but the most sensitive child. Indeed, most of the kids in attendance were completely captivated throughout and the uplifting ending should counter any fears they (or their parents) may have. For anyone the panto-phobic, this makes for a thrilling alternative Christmas show.