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Rat in a Box
Tristan Bates Theatre
9th August 2016

★★★☆☆

Publicity photograph for Rat in a Box

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

Ah, London: aren't all the streets supposed to be paved with gold or something? Given the number of people who move to the capital each year seeking fame, fortune or both, it's a rumour that just won't quit. With its mythical reputation for granting wishes, London makes for the perfect setting for traditional fairytales and very modern problems to collide to funny effect, as is in the case in writer, director and actor Abe Buckoke's whimsically weird Rat in a Box. It's a comedy that touches on class differences, hopes and dreams, however is essentially an hour-long look at how everyday London isn't always perfect. (Yeah, we know. Blasphemy.)

The play has a slightly odd opening with a faux crisis which doesn't quite work, and it feels as if the energy takes a little while to establish itself, partially due to this early wrong-footing. There's a bumpy introduction explaining how Edwina (Elle Banstead-Salim) comes to acquire lodgers in every nook and cranny of her house. There's Nigel (James Messer) on her sofa, Greta (Emily Warren) in her own bedroom and Cindy (Annabelle Rich) down in the cellar. Perhaps this might seem ridiculous to anyone else, but all Londoners in the audience will agree that you can't expect a lot for your money here. Especially if you're Cindy. However, the characters do all grow on you and suddenly, no matter how surreal this play is, with an exterminator (James McClelland) chasing after rats with nothing more than a hammer as equipment, you realise how quickly it's grown on you.

Whilst the housemates we initially meet are all very exaggerated characters, we do get to see more depth the longer we spend with them, and as odious as Edwina is, we do come to love her anyway. Although she may come across as heartless, she certainly defines herself as a known quantity from the start; the sort of person who you keep in your life because as mad as she is, you always know where you stand. The love triangle between rich boy Richard (Buckoke), Edwina and Cindy develops well into one of the main storylines, with some pleasingly comedic scenes. Buckoke and McClelland's interactions as, well, a prince and pauper are charmingly funny, with both men having some of the most unexpected but genuine laugh out loud moments. The whole cast though deliver some very strong performances.

Fairytale allusions are woven though the script by Buckocke to lovely effect, far more successfully than his play within a play trope. Some of the jokes feel a little old hat, but as uneven as the laughter is in places, you can't deny that the audience do have a good time overall. It's clear that where Buckoke has tried to do something new, it works brilliantly, and it's relying on old, outdated ideas to bridge those little magical moments that lets him down.

Rat in a Box is an entertaining, surreal comedy about life in London as a 20-something. I don't think it does deliver any strong messages about social class or the cost of living, but it does makes you laugh, and frankly, sometimes that's all you want from a show. With a couple of tweaks to the script, there's an even better play trying to gnaw its way out and I sincerely hope Buckoke does decide to rework and restage this piece as I don't feel like this story has had its ever after yet.

Rat in a Box opened on 9th August and runs until 13th August 2016 at the Tristan Bates Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)



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