Playwright Mike Leigh is best known for the television production of his play “ Abigail’s Party” and the film “Secrets and Lies”. His oeuvre is of making an art form out of the ordinary, ordinary conversations from ordinary people, and creating something extraordinary from them.
“Smelling a Rat” is not one of the better known of Leigh’s pieces and the decision to stage it almost thirty years after its 1988 debut was bold and brave by Director David Stone.
A five hander, the cast comprises Rex Weasel, owner of the Vermination Pest Control in whose flat events unfold, his employees Vic and Charmane Weasel, and his estranged son, Rock and his girlfriend Melanie -Jane.
A single bedroom set painfully accurate in its depiction of a gauche, expensive apartment neatly offers the doors essential to farce via wardrobe doors, the musical overture of “Rat in the Kitchen” neatly captures the spirit of the age, and the play.
Rarely have I heard an audience as stirred, and divided, by a play as I did on Monday night. Some hated it, dismissing it as lightweight nonsense, others defended its surreal use of language and satire of English customs.
Weasel, confidently played by David Weller, is a neurotic failed husband and failed father, good at bedroom putting, hopeless as a parent to his son, Rock. Rod Bissett’s Vic is energetic, dynamic, streetwise, wise cracking and happy go lucky, Harry Enfield’s “Loadsamoney” with a fit bird. Opposite him, Liz Webster as his wife, is a joy, mouthy, tipsy, and a specialist in saying a lot of not very much. For much of the production, emotionally damaged Rock, the brooding Sam Evans, stares as blankly as some members of the audience stared back. Repressed Melanie-Jane, played by Rachel Homes, spends much of her time either locked away in the bathroom, or unleashing her sexual frustrations on her boyfriend. All the characters share a struggle to express inexpressible feelings. Their words are important, but rarely enough. They evade, they hide rather than properly communicate.
The cast is excellent, the direction adroit, the material teeters on simply being banal, rather than banal to illustrate a point. Weasel’s gun seems like a forced device to inject dramatic tension rather than a bona fide plot development.
The device of one bedroom, five characters and six wardrobes is set up to taunt the audience into expecting something that never happens. Everybody keeps their clothes on, the doors stay shut tight, there is no reveal, no shock denouement. Unsurprisingly this is not to everyone’s taste. Aficionados of Leigh’s work will leave satisfied, fulfilled, and intrigued, casual theatre goers less so. a production and play which polarises opinion – Mike Leigh would approve.
“Smelling a Rat” runs until 24th September.
PS. How I would have loved it if, when Rod hides in a wardrobe, Rex had wandered round to the soundtrack of Department S performing “Is Vic there?”