There can't be too many children's stage shows that could cite Martin Scorsese's mafia movie Goodfellas as an artistic influence, and fewer still that have drawn on Thomas Mann's tortured homoerotic love story Death in Venice for inspiration. So it may come as a surprise to hear that in the lead-up to Christmas, the Royal Shakespeare Company has eschewed the usual festive family fare – the Cinderellas and Pinocchios that come around every year – and settled on a theatrical adaptation of a lesser-known, cult children's classic, The Mouse and His Child, written in 1967 by Russell Hoban, that contains both these very adult references.
The story revolves around a father- and-son relationship of two wind-up toy mice who are discarded from a toyshop and must find a way to live independently in their new, unknown world. This dark and daring production features a scene in which the baleful character of Manny the rat – an enemy of the mice – is modelled on a scene in Goodfellas in which Joe Pesci displays his "psychotic energy".
Paul Hunter, the play's director and a veteran of the children's stage who is known for the physicality of his productions, believes that "adult material can inform children's work", and that there need not be an artificial dividing line between the two. "I'm not delivering a show for children. My inspiration is Pixar films and my target audience is anyone who breathes – the widest possible audience."
He has, he adds, always sought to infuse his work with the most eclectic of references. "This story is brilliant and I think, like all really good children's stories, it's a story for everybody. I was keen for this show to very much draw on the dark side of Hoban's book. It was very important not to sanitise that. There's a moment in the script when the chief rat, Manny, turns on his gang with the same psychotic power of Joe Pesci in an iconic scene from Goodfellas where he seemed to be improvising. The scene has the same alarming unpredictability, so I said, 'I think we should do it.' It was not to parody Goodfellas, but it worked completely in context with the story and with the intensity of the moment."
Hunter happened to be reading Death in Venice in the months leading up to rehearsals and said the novella's driving theme of an obsession with beauty that the elderly Gustav von Aschenbach feels towards the beautiful boy, Tadzio, seemed to resonate in Hoban's characters, too. "Initially, it's a strange notion but it's exactly what Manny feels when he sees the two wind-up toys. [This reference] makes it so much stronger."
"The audience won't be coming into a Christmas show asking themselves, 'How will they do the ball scene?'" says Hunter. "Instead, they'll be following a gripping story that many will be encountering for the first time." Despite the story's relative obscurity – it has never been adapted for a major stage production and the book fell out of print until 2001 – the American director Steven Spielberg is now believed to be adapting The Mouse and His Child into a Hollywood film. It will follow the box-office success of his adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse.
Hunter believes that the staging of War Horse at the National Theatre, and subsequently in film, reflected a growing desire for stories that appeal to both adults and children, such as the Harry Potter series and Philip Pullman's stories.
"Post-War Horse, there is a realisation that what a lot of people are after is really good work that speaks to this wide audience, and people are thinking about how to make work that speaks to the whole family. I think there is a real desire for crossover in drama – for children, parents and grandparents to come together – and cinema and literature is slightly one step ahead [of theatre] at the moment."
Tamsin Oglesby, the show's scriptwriter, who was given free rein to choose a children's story for Christmas by the RSC, said she knew and loved the story from her own childhood and never felt the pressure to go with a safer, more mainstream choice. "I very much felt that I didn't want to adapt something that was very familiar. When I started looking, I decided that I wanted to do something original and this story is highly original. There is something extraordinary about it. It is wonderfully weird, very humane and very dark, and I love the way it switches from darkness to humour."
Its themes, in book form, involve philosophical discussions around identity, asylum and homelessness as well as the central endeavour for independent survival. The epic journey of the father and son could also embody – for modern audiences – the struggles for single parent fathers.
Oglesby did not treat it like a "children's story" in its adaptation, but simply as a story. "It's for everyone. Someone has said that if Samuel Beckett had written a children's book, this would have been it. By telling the story, it will work on all levels. As soon as you start thinking, 'We'll do that for the children,' you patronise them and they can smell it."
Despite the profundity of the play, children have responded with avid enthusiasm in preview shows, which are as visually striking as they are physical. The audience has ranged from excited three-year-olds to older children who appreciate it on another level, some asking their accompanying adults to explain the meaning of "self-determination" and other philosophical terms during the interval.
Hunter chose to have living actors perform as the animals, which range from mice to a seal, frog, muskrat and elephant, rather than employing the puppetry techniques seen in War Horse, because he felt that at its heart "this is a wonderful, human story".