This is a brave and ambitious choice for an RSC family Christmas show.
Russell Hoban's cult 1967 novel (adroitly adapted by Tamsin Oglesby) follows the fortunes of a pair of clockwork mice – a conjoined father-and-son. But though it may start in a toy-shop during the festive season, the story shows how the duo are thrust out into a cruel world where creatures of their kind are kidnapped and forced to toil in a slave labour camp.
This is located on a vast rubbish dump and ruled over by Manny, a murderous (if mercifully accident-prone) Rat who is portrayed here by the excellent Michael Hodgson as a blackly clownish melange of Richard III, Fagin and Hitler. Dizzying philosophical questions about identity, territory, the nature of infinity et al are thrown up, as our eponymous heroes journey onwards in the quest to find their original home and to fulfil their dream of becoming self-winding.
This stage version may not solve all the narrative problems of clarity and incremental build-up posed by such a loosely episodic tale. And it's slightly frustrating that the Mouse and his son – played with an adorable air of gently naïve and earnest puzzlement by Daniel Ryan and Bettrys Jones – can't help but be largely passive figures until the twist in the second half when the child starts to become the father of the man (or rather the Mouse). But the balance between menacing darkness and comic resilience is handled with terrific imaginative brio by Paul Hunter's production with its chorus of jazz-playing Beckettian tramps; its Stomp-style line-up of rats; and the striking resourceful design by Angela Davie where, picking up on the clockwork theme, the stage is a mobile series of interlocking cog-wheels and the huge port-hole/tunnel at the back proves handy for plummeting disappearances and for projected shadow-puppetry.
Unlike in Toy Story (which must surely have been influenced by Hoban), human beings rapidly fade from the narrative but the animals are wittily anthropomorphised (David Charles is a hoot as Seventies hippy-style fortune-telling Frog) and the wind-up toys have a vivid individuality. Disturbing things happen (as when the rats encircle a donkey who has dared to complain of exhaustion and rip out her clockwork) but the overall effect of the show is heartening because it gives you an exhilarating vision of the courage and humour these eventually vanquished predators so sorely envy. A thought-provoking delight.
To 12 Jan 2013; 0844 800 1110