December is upon us which means, for those festive resistors out there, that you can now happily get into the tinsley swing of things without feeling you are robbing November of its identity.
One event to begin festivities is the premier of Carol Ann Duffy’s Rats’ Tales at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. After that, Christmas markets, fairy lights and endless reindeer-illustrated-cups of mulled wine can ensue with full-on glee.
So as theatres across the land prepare for panto season, the Exchange has gone decidedly darker with its Christmas Offering. Rats’ Tales is the most recent Grimms’ fairy tale-esque collaboration between Poet Laureate and Adapter/Director Melly Still who began working together almost 20 years ago.
Their most current production sees the telling of eight traditional, adapted and newly written fairy tales from the darkest corners of Europe; each as sinister as the next. We have child abduction, a wickedly jealous mother, a violent stepfather, a changeling and a touch of potential incest. In a storybook world awash with saccharine royal-iced glossing, Rats’ Tales taps into every child’s fear and every adult’s nightmare.
Proceedings are pleasantly balanced with lively and humorous performances from a mainly debut cast to the Exchange stage. This unfamiliarity aids an air of the unknown which certainly has you checking over your shoulder a few times when the stories reach their darkest. We have a Pied Piper who looks like Nick Cave as the devil incarnate, a teacher turned wooden doll turned back-end of a horse and a woodcutter who flits as both Prince Charming and troll child.
Cast versatility is mirrored by a dynamic and creative use of staging and sound; barn fires, cliff edges and fast flowing rivers are presented at a fearsome pace leaving viewers slightly breathless from all the action. Inventive sound effects and music are preformed live by multi-instrumentalist duo Rosemary Toll and Tom Thorp and are far from minimal. They play everything from guitars and sax to clarinet, glockenspiel and cello not to mention percussion and keys, used in a variety of ways ranging from the traditional, to the positively inventively unusual. Additional to this is some sharp and quite chilling video work my Manchester based Soup Collective, which cleverly places the fairy tales in the present day; reinforcing the fact that such fears and threats are as justified now as they ever were.
As tale after tale unfolds you feel like the child who, having asked for just one more story, actually gets another, then another; each creepier than the last. You are left feeling that you would rather have another scary story, than be left alone. But fear not, there are some happy endings, though even those do not come easily.
Rats’ Tales is at best when it is at its darkest and it successfully drags you through a full-range of emotions, as is typical of the average child’s day. If you allow yourself, you can step into the sinister, safe in the knowledge that you will be singing and dancing by the end – the production team have worked hard to maintain that balance that allows the play to be enjoyed by everyone “from age 8 to 108” as it is claimed. And I could see by the faces of the audience that that is certainly true.
Rats’ Tales is both light and dark, scary and sentimental, sinister, and overall jubilantly so. For a much-anticipated Christmas production, the Royal Exchange have reached deep into the shadows and pulled out a real gem of a show.