December 2012 was the Month Of The Rat in my house: two of my kids, along with 88 others, have been performing in Rats’ Tales at The Royal Exchange Theatre. Consequently I’ve seen the show a few times; the reviews have been glowing but I would say the audience response has been mixed.

Rats’ Tales is a series of eight traditional and original stories adapted for the stage, most of which describe children’s lives damaged by adults. Aimed at ages 8 to 108, it is an admirable project: lure the smug middle-classes into the theatre over Christmas; then bombard the self-obsessed parents with sinister representations of their worst selves, preferably in the presence of their children.

In the opening Pied Piper tale, the Politician’s speech highlights parallels between Hamelin’s crisis and our modern-day economic woes. There is no happy ending; and sure enough it would seem that as a nation, we, like the townsfolk, prize our present comfort above our children’s futures.

The remaining seven tales end better, but most contain claustrophobic portrayals of domestic dysfunction; children are at the mercy of adults, as they are in life.

The repeated image of the mirror-mime (where an actor plays another actor’s reflection) hints that we should watch for reflections of ourselves on-stage. The Changeling‘s father mirrors those of us who dread giving birth to a seriously disabled child, i.e. the vast majority; this harrowing tale obliquely explores an aspect of the parental experience which is generally ignored by artists and storytellers.

Meanwhile, The Stolen Childhood‘s vain widow, who steals her step-daughter’s youth, seems too evil to be real. Wicked step-mothers may be stock fairytale villains, but the modern media generally indulges glamorous older women, often presenting them as aspirational figures.

“I will be happy,” the widow informs her step-daughter, as though setting out her stall for Hello magazine, “my wedding day will be the happiest day of my life… I will wear a dress of silver and gold…”

I found myself wondering if any spectating parents with elaborate plans to remarry imminently would find their enthusiasm curbed…

Invisible also concerns a parent’s remarriage but, this time, the villain is the step-father, who ignores and neglects his step-son, causing the boy to disappear.

Rats’ Tales explores abuse of parental power, fear of ageing, senility, incest, forced marriage and domestic violence. The subject matter is powerful but its impact is often diminished by the methods employed to dramatise it.

Because all the characters are defined by their roles, they are ‘archetypes’ and as such are prone to appear stereotypical and two-dimensional. The characters are not allowed to have lives of their own… they are the writer’s puppets.

Moreover, the script is dull; the language is run-of-the-mill and contains numerous fairytale cliches. Odd words and phrases stand out as more interesting: before the invention of writing or even sign language; the diamond ring from his pinky; Bloody hell! How’s that to be managed? and I would not marry the Squire if he sat in powdered gold from arsehole to earhole… but these are the exceptions. The cast sometimes struggle to squeeze any life out of the text which often teeters uncomfortably on the edge of parody.

Unusually, the characters narrate descriptions of their own actions as they perform them. These narrations are alternated with conventional dialogue:

The Stolen Childhood‘s Stepdaughter: What is happening to me? She hears the light music of her own voice and she laughs with delight. Stepmother! I am myself again! She feels her young lungs breathing easily and her heart opens like a flower… etc…

This story-telling device produces a contrived, ‘stagey’ effect which is hard for the actors to exploit or rise above. They are freer to project their characters when they have minimal narration duties (e.g. the Pied Piper, the Troll Baby, Invisible‘s Step-father, A Little Girl.)

Invisible‘s Girl in the woods, though a minor character, commands our full attention when she unexpectedly performs the longest piece of continuous dialogue in the play. The Girl steals the limelight from the Lad’s character, who has just laboured for half an hour, narrating his own every move, without the gift of a punchline.

The same actress goes on to play the lead in Wooden Maria (an alternative Cinderella) and emerges as the star of the show. Carol Ann Duffy and Melly Still’s message to young women seems to be ‘Be your own fairy godmother; it may be necessary to manipulate men in your pursuit of happiness.’

There is an oddly 1950s feel to the ‘state the obvious’ text combined with the figure of the plucky heroine pitted against a patriarchal world; I am not convinced that the writers are in control of the farcical tone which results, although the actors work with it as best they can.

Links between the play’s content and the eponymous rats are fairly tenuous… (although the villains might be described as ‘rats’ in general.) The rat references do not illuminate or extend our understanding of the dysfunctional adult-child relationships at the heart of the play.

Instead, the rats provide a motif which is stretched around the text in a fairly clumsy attempt to suggest unity. Only three of the eight stories contain rats as actors in the narrative… and, of these, the last story’s rat could just as well have been any other creature or person; in fact his behaviour is most un-rat-like.

The Lost Happy Endings is apparently intended to empower us to create our own happy endings; unfortunately it seems to be tacked onto the end of the play as an after-thought and is not, in itself, a fine example of a strong ending. But after two and a half hours, everyone’s so relieved the play is nearly over that nobody minds.

The production contains some very striking visual images: The Stolen Childhood‘s scissors cutting off the girl’s shadow and the flying coat which suggests a headless horseman; the emergence of the overgrown girl from the dolls’ house, Alice-like, in A Little Girl; The Changeling‘s string ravine and off-stage inferno; Maria’s wooden dress and the clog-dancing, lace-covered ‘pantomime’ horse in The Squire’s Bride. But the staging is not visually lavish; the spectacle is self-consciously sparse and all these striking images are realised as simply as possible.

Music and sound, provided live by two versatile musicians, accompanies the on-stage action throughout; they produce an impressive range of tailor-made sounds, from film-quality glissando effects to haunting traditional folk melodies.

Rats’ Tales has been an interesting experiment; the involvement of 90 ordinary children in a professional show about stolen childhoods has cost the theatre great effort, time and money to realise; I am grateful that my kids have been involved because the experience has been amazing for them even though their time on-stage is brief.

The themes of the play are powerful, subversive and well-suited to being explored through fairytales. But the execution is flawed: the script is laborious, the tales are too long and slow-moving, and the characters are insubstantial. The show contains some wit but not enough to make it truly entertaining. Strong visual and sound design cannot save the production from the merciless drag of the text.

It’s ironic that the theme of the final tale is the transformative effect of the poet’s pen, as the poet’s pen fails to deliver in the case of Rats’ Tales… although the opportunity to wield it clearly empowers the writers, and will continue to do so in the absence of exacting criticism from the mainstream press.

Rats’ Tales is basically nutritious but difficult to digest; a wholegrain, fat-free, no-added-sugar alternative pantomime which contains enough interest to entertain most children, while many middle-class adults will forgive its failings because it is so worthy. No wonder The Guardian gave it five stars.