The Mouse and His Child at Stratford - a wonderful (and bonkers) evening

The Royal Shakespeare Company has put on a magnificent stage production of Russell Hoban's The Mouse and His Child in Stratford.

I went to the show last Friday night with my two children (aged 7 and 5), to whom I have been reading the novel over the past several weeks, and my wife, who was unfamiliar with the book.

The first surprise (to me at least - I haven't been to the theatre for some years and never before to the RSC) was the staging. This was no traditional "theatre-style" setup. Sitting in the front row of the stalls, we were within touching-distance of the stage. This was engaging, although it had some unexpected consequences (of which more below). From this vantage point the actors looked not just life-size but larger than life. The action was very physical, in all senses - characters dashing in and out via catwalks cutting through the audience, others being lowered on wires onto the stage from the rafters or hoisted up into them.

At the back of the stage was an enormous hinged door which opened occasionally to swallow up characters not so much off-stage as off-world, and which doubled-up as a backdrop for projections, with silhouettes of the rubbish dump, dolls' house, icy pond and a Nosferatu-like tyrant. A similar backdrop in the ceiling projected by turns the sky, the lights on a Christmas tree, the surface of a pond. When Frog was swept up by an owl, the actor playing the owl grabbed the actor playing Frog, while the "ceiling backdrop" showed an animated silhouette of an actual owl carrying off a real frog.

The show was unexpectedly musical. The original story has a lullaby sung to the distraught Mouse Child by the Elephant, but little else (actually unusual for a Hoban book). Here though the show started with a raggedy Salvation Army-type band playing Christmas tunes with comical bum notes, while in an unforgettable scene Manny Rat and his court danced a fantastic routine to Quincy Jones's Soul Bossa Nova (the live backing supplied by the same band), and the Elephant's lullaby was also set to music.

The adaptation was faithful to the plot, with as far as I can think only the Muskrat section left out. While I was reading the book to my children, it had occurred to me that the tree-felling scene was likely to be spectacular; sadly it wasn't included. Perhaps more obviously, the Caws of Art had high billing, with a hilarious Parrot. Together with a nattily-suited Bittern, the birds were especially well observed. The rats eschewed tails and ears and were a rancid band of twisted criminals with long, bulbous feet and sharp teeth.

It didn't seem as if a great deal of Hoban's original dialogue made it into the play, although essential passages remained intact, and in any case the book arguably consists more of Dickensian prose than witty repartee. I wondered what Russ would have made of a scene that didn't appear in the book at all, in fact which was lifted almost entirely (sans swearwords) from Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, with Manny Rat comically menacing in the Joe Pesci role. Actually I think Russ would've loved it, it was appropriate and worked well and was also important for giving the grown-ups in the audience something to laugh knowingly about, as grown-ups do.

I also felt that the Mouse Father and Child often seemed a bit sidelined by the other characters. Reading the book, they're there on every page, often talking to each other and reminding you of their struggles and hopes. Here, you realise the difficulty of staging a pair of conjoined, static, innocent, quiet clockwork characters amid real-life animals who constantly leap, shuffle, run, fly, waddle, dance, shout and squawk. It occurred to me that someone unfamiliar with the book might have sometimes forgotten the mice (played by a cuddly Daniel Ryan and heartbreaking Bettrys Jones) in the face of an absolute tour-de-force from Michael Hodgson as Manny Rat. Frog also was played wonderfully by David Charles as a Californian hippy complete with sandals and peace symbols, hopping about uttering his improvised profundities. My other favourites were Ansu Kabia's Kingfisher, Carla Mendonca's Elephant (my children recognised her from TV's My Parents Are Aliens), and the Seal, played with bathing costume and saxophone by Naomi Sheldon. All of them were so good that you sensed the mice's desperation to become self-winding so they could be even half as animate as the others - hence I suppose it's a bit pointless to wish for more of the mice, but I did anyway.

When I looked through the cast list prior to the show I was disappointed not to see Miss Mudd, one of my favourite characters from the story. In fact "she" was included, but played by a rumpled, bearded male actor. The effect took a moment to register but of course it worked perfectly: "Who are you?" asks the Mouse Child. "Pond life," comes the reply. Why should gender even come into it? Decked out in greens and browns, "Mud" is pushing a wheelbarrow with a tarpaulin covering something that slowly begins to stir - finally revealed as a luminous dragonfly, played also by a man (it must be said a much more attractive one) billowing a sparkling green sheet of wings as he/she discovers a glorious new form. I won't give away the black comedy of what happens next but that scene was done with particular beauty and simplicity.

There was no audience participation as such, but sitting in the front row we did at one point get a bit more than we bargained for. During one scene, Manny is bemoaning his existence, and as if to rub it in it starts snowing, just on him. The snow was made of small chunks of polystyrene and remained on the stage for some while after the scene, at least until most of it was swept off again in the downdraft from some cloth scenery being enthusiastically lifted off by some rats. My children and I got a lovely showering of snow, but it was all part of the fun.

In spite of these few criticisms it was a wonderful evening which all of us loved, and one I would heartily recommend to audiences of any age. I hope very much that it tours, or at least transfers to London, in the new year.