“The Mouse and His Child”

at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Saturday 8th December 2012

The Mouse and His Child is, hands down, the most fun I’ve had at the RSC since Matilda. It is also the most inventive, playful and well-put-together show I’ve seen the company produce in the past two years, even with the fanfare and pomp of the World Shakespeare Festival and Boyd’s final season. Since watching it yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the genre of children’s theatre (or theatre for children) and whether it can teach us something about theatremaking in general.

The show itself is an adaptation of Russell Hoban’s book of the same name, in a script penned by Tamsin Oglesby. It’s a charming Christmas tale about a clockwork mouse-and-child toy who find themselves in the wilderness on their own and looking for a family made of other toys and the animals they meet on the way. The cast, led by Daniel Ryan and Bettrys Jones as the eponymous heroes, is universally brilliant, with energetic performances from Carla Mendonca, David Charles and Michael Hodgson among others.

Director Paul Hunter employs – for want of a better phrase – a devised, physical theatre style approach in his rehearsal room, allowing anyone to chip in ideas, improvising, shaping and moulding until the right solution is found. Pots and pans take the place of instruments (don’t worry it’s better than Stomp) and the simplest of objects are turned into puppets, whilst costumes only hint towards character with simple accessories rather than making fully-blown mouse outfits.

Every moment is imbued with a sense of imagination and childishness, and not one scene is dull or unnecessary. It’s bizarre, however, that many still see this as not workable within a more ‘mature’ theatre environment. We seem to separate children’s theatre from actual theatre, and prefer a more intellectual approach to Shakespeare and the classics. But why shouldn’t these texts be explored in a similar way? Some of the best Shakespearean productions I’ve seen have been meant for kids, and are no less satisfying or rigorous because of it. As adults, we disregard childish, playful thoughts far too quickly without recognising the positive impact we could have. What The Mouse and His Child and its ilk do is remind is there is nothing to be ashamed about in having an imagination and a sense of play; in itself a rather subversive political idea.

This sense of playfulness isn’t just apparent in the performances but also in the very fabric of the production, including perhaps the best use of the thrust space since the Histories. The 3D-ness of the theatre is utilised fully, complete with trap doors, flying things, multiple entrances and four revolves, leading to never-ending movement and frequent surprises. The use of shadow puppet-style animations projected onto various surfaces also aids the storytelling and means huge set changes aren’t necessary. In Borrowers style, small objects are made large, so that we see a huge string of fairy lights on the back wall and a spool of thread hanging above the stage.

Hunter’s production also revels in its own theatricality, never once attempting any attempt at naturalism. It’s also highly self-referential (here followeth a spoiler). One hilarious moment sees an ugly larvae turn into a puppet dragonfly, which soars around the stage before being zapped by a lightbulb and smacking onto the floor. After a roar of laughter, the puppeteer exclaims “What?! It’s called The Mouse and His Child isn’t it? Not The Bloke with the Dead Dragonfly“. Michael Hodgson as the slightly pantomimic (but utterly superb) Manny Rat, complete with Trunchbull-esque hunch, also has a wonderful rapport with the audience and makes no attempt to disguise the fact he is an actor playing a character.

I’ll no doubt be chided for looking too deeply into a children’s production, but it’s hard not to wish this style were employed more universally. Many have suggested the production is too complicated, and complained that without knowing the story the narrative is lost, but seeing as the way it is told is just as important this misses the point (and is, in my opinion, slightly idiotic; I knew neither the book nor the story yet still got every moment). The story also has a wonderful moral, suggesting cooperation is better than competition as the Child laments “Why does everyone want to eat everyone else?” I know it’s ‘only’ children’s theatre. But it’s bloody good children’s theatre. And it could teach the rest of us a thing or two.

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