Last night I was lucky enough to attend a special performance of Philip Pullman’s I Was A Rat at the Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham. The Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company are 100 years old and have a history of pushing the boundaries of what is expected from the theatre. Progressive on stage and off, the REP is a huge part of Birmingham’s culture and has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.
While the Repertory Theatre itself is undergoing refurbishment, in tandem with construction of the new Birmingham Library at the same site, last night’s show was proof that the old roots are still strong and the prolonged closure of the theatre has had no affect on the quality of performances still ongoing in the city. Before the show members of The Destroyers played live music to welcome the audience and set the tone of the evening.
The adaptation of I Was A Rat was truly a theatrical extravaganza, employing physical and musical theatre techniques to produce a colourful, energetic show. During the play, puppetry, live music, dance, masks, streamers, lighting and acrobatics were all put to best use in a production that blew me away and left me grinning and whooping at the end.
The show far exceeded my expectations, and indeed not having read the book I was not sure what to expect. A kids’ show, I thought. A play, a fairytale. It was so much more than that. It was dark and mysterious, intriguing, clever, creepy and surreal at times, and overall utterly dramatic in every sense. This was by far the strongest stage performance I have seen in years, and I do go to the theatre fairly often.
What made the evening even more special was the fact that it was the REP’s birthday celebration. The curtain call itself was immense, deservedly so, but when the cast called the director up on stage I knew something bigger was afoot.
Representatives of the theatre company thanked the audience and gave a little background into the celebrations, then after a short introduction from the REP’s new artistic director, Birmingham born Steve Camden aka Polarbear gave a live performance in the form of a poem all about the Birmingham REP.
You can see why he is such a well-respected spoken word artist. The topic had clearly been well researched and transported the audience back to various moments in time from the REP’s history. From George Bernard Shaw to Laurence Olivier, from regular audience members to first time watchers, from controversy to awe, from Shakespeare to The Snowman, we were there, standing on Broad Street on a winter night, looking at this icon of a theatre alongside his memories.
With streamers still hanging in my hair and caught on my scarf, with a REP 100 goodie bag clenched between my fingers, I left the theatre truly elated and awed by the magic the REP continues to create time and time again. The world is changing and modernising around us, but theatre has existed for centuries and will continue to do so. Nothing will ever replace that buzz, the applause, the live and immediate atmosphere, nor that happy stroll from the theatre to home, discussing the play we have just seen and re-living each acrobat’s tumble, each hero’s lines, and each song, for hours and days and years.