Rats’ Tales at Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre

Last night I went to see the world premiere of Carol Ann Duffy’s  ‘Rats’ Tales’ at Manchester’s magnificent Royal Exchange Theatre. As you probably know, I am a huge fan of all things theatrical and have seen some incredible shows so far this year in 2012, but have I saved the best while (almost) last? Read on Tortoise Soup friend and find out!


‘Rats’ Tales’ was written  by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and was adapted for the stage and directed by Melly Still. It runs until 12th January 2013, unless the Mayans are correct, and is aimed at a family audience. As my own forthcoming novel ‘Tortoise Soup’ can also be enjoyed by both children and adults I was fascinated to see what lay ahead. An initial word of warning here though – some of this theatrical event (I can’t call it simply a ‘play’) is very dark and could be terrifying to younger children.

‘Rat’s Tales’ is a dramatic interpretation of eight ostensibly unconnected stories. The first story is very well known: that of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. After this we have seven stories created by Duffy herself. These are very dark fairy tales, newly created but very in keeping with folk tradition – in the way that Italo Calvino did with Italy’s folk tales.

The stories are often sad, frequently violent and on one level bizzare and challenging. For example ‘Wooden Maria’ where the King is fated to marry his own daughter and ‘The Squire’s Bride’ where the titular noble is encouraged to marry a horse.

Death runs throughout the tales, as do rats in one form or another, and there are also two deadly fires. The real theme that connects the Tales however is childhood and aging, the horror of disappearing youth. These modern fairy stories challenge us to encounter our own mortality, our own fleeting and tender hold on what we consider reality.

Yes, the tales are very dark but that is not to say bleak. The children in the audience seemed to love it, and there are often moments of high humour amidst astonishingly acrobatic displays of physical theatre. A joyous ending had my eyes moistening up, I hope that my companion didn’t see, and should help to appease any frightened audience members.

The staging was courageous and successful. Eight actors play numerous parts each, and their efforts were uniformly brilliant. It is hard to pick out one shining star, but special praise has to go to Katherine Manners, especially moving in Wooden Maria.

The special effects were excellent, especially the use of television screens around the set to show us external events. Music and dance also played a large part, the morris dancing horse has to be seen to be believed.

In fact, ‘Rats’ Tales’ as a whole has to be seen to be believed. It is an astonishing work, quite simply I have never seen anything like it before. I came away at the end energised, full of life and with the certain knowledge that I had been at the first night of a work of theatrical genius.

My five tortoise shell rating hardly does this masterpiece justice, but five shells it receives. I thoroughly recommend that you see this show if you get the chance. Is it the best thing that I have seen this year? Well I have seen an awful lot – so to find out be sure to check out the 2012 Tortoise Soup Awards on New Year’s Eve. Please comment below if you have seen it or have any other suggestions for a great show to see this Christmas time.



Animals Also Serve

This week at Tortoise Soup we have paid our respects to those who died serving a greater cause. Remembrance Sunday gives us the opportunity to pay tribute to the bravest of the brave: those men and women who put their lives on the line to protect their country and to preserve the freedom of the world. May they rest in a peace that was denied them in life. But we would do well to remember another band of courageous souls: the animals who have also performed extraordinary acts in times of war.

In the United Kingdom we have the Victoria Cross as the ultimate recognition of wartime bravery. The words ‘For Valour’ are engraved upon it to tell the world that the recipient is a person of astonishing heroism. Not as widely known is that there is also an animal equivalent: the ‘Dickin Medal’. This medal is awarded to animals who have displayed tremendous courage in times of conflict, it is a bronze medal and is inscribed with the words ‘For Gallantry’ and ‘We Also Serve’.

The award was created by Maria Dickin of the PDSA – a British animal charity. It awards the medal to animals who have displayed: “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.” The first three Dickin Medals were awarded in 1943 – can you guess what animals they were awarded to? If you said dogs you are wrong. If you said horses you are wrong. If you said pigs then you were, semiotics wise, half right. The first recipients were three carrier pigeons called White, Winkie and Tyke. They evaded hostile fire to carry a message from behind enemy lines.

It seems that pigeons are the bravest of all brave animals. The medal has been awarded sixty four times since its inception and the recipients are as follows: 32 pigeons, 28 dogs, 3 horses and 1 cat called Simon.

Some of these animals’ stories are amazing. Ricky was a Welsh Collie who saved many lives by continuing to locate mines alongside a Dutch canal despite being injured by one. Punch and Judy saved two British officers in Israel by attacking a terrorist before he could get detonate himself. Princess the pigeon carried an important message home from Crete, covering over 500 miles in a single day! Other medals recognise the incredible value of an animals love: Judy, a Pointer dog, was given the Dickin Medal for helping to keep morale high among her fellow inmates in a Japanese Prisoner Of War camp.

Simon the cat was a stowaway on board HMS Amethyst, who quickly became a favourite with the crew. Amethyst came under heavy attack and Simon was badly injured, his whiskers and eyebrows had been burned off and his fur was singed and covered in blood from the many shrapnel wounds that he had taken. He wasn’t expected to live. Disturbed by the shelling, rats came out into the open and started eating the ships dwindling supplies and attacking sailors as they slept. Simon miraculously pulled through and soon turned his attention to the rats, capturing several huge rats every day. The ships morale soared and Simon the cat became its hero. Here he is proudly wearing the Dickin Medal around his neck.

No tortoises have won the award – as yet! But I know from my experience with my own beloved tortoise Ovid that if they were ever called upon to serve their country they would do a wonderful, if sometimes slow, job. Byron Tinker, the hero of my forthcoming children’s novel ‘Tortoise Soup’, displays many amazing acts of bravery, but the Dickin Medal shows that animal courage and bravery is the stuff of fact as well as fiction.

I particularly love the Dickin Medal because it recognises the truth that all animal adorers recognise: that animals can love us just as much as we love them, that they truly do have feelings and emotions. That they are really more than a little bit like us, just in a different form.

So on this week, and every week, let us remember with grateful affection service men and women everywhere. Especially those who are no longer with us. But let us also raise a glass and say ‘cheers’ to the brave animals who have done their bit to make our world a better and safer place. Animals also serve.